Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday wondered aloud in speech in Takhmao whether anyone cared about prisoners, one day after jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha saw his final bid for bail rejected at the Supreme Court.
Despite pledging months ago to stop talking about Sokha’s forcibly dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, Hun Sen has since found it impossible to avoid the subject, repeatedly defending the government’s crackdown on the opposition as a necessary measure to maintain peace and stability.
Speaking at Takhmao’s Water Festival on Saturday, the premier said he was pleased to be presiding over the event in “the land of peace, political stability, and our people are very happy with it”.
“Our population is 16 million,” he added. “How many people suffer over the prisoners?”
He neglected to mention that around 3 million people voted for the opposition in last June’s local elections, as well as in 2013’s national elections, making up about 44 percent of voters in both instances.
Meanwhile, Sokha’s final appeal for bail was rejected on Friday. He is awaiting trial on a charge of “treason” – an allegation widely believed to be politically motivated.
Sokha, former president of the CNRP, was arrested around midnight on September 3 and has spent the past six months detained in a remote prison in Tbong Khmum province, near the Vietnam border.
The CNRP – the only viable competitor to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party – was forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court in November, just months before this year’s national election, with 118 of the party’s members banned from undertaking political activities for the next five years.
Seven of Sokha’s eight lawyers made lengthy verbal appeals to the Supreme Court judges on Friday morning, suggesting it was damaging to Cambodia’s standing to keep him in prison.
Lawyer Meng Sopheary told the court it was “unreasonable” to keep her client in detention and pointed out that his arrest had contributed to the US cutting off some aid to Cambodia.
“Now, we don’t have a [good] reputation at the international level because Kem Sokha is in detention,” Sopheary said.
“This is to show that putting Kem Sokha in detention does not help and is a lost opportunity to have the country developed and receive more funds.”
Several lawyers, such as Chan Cheng, referred to Sokha’s ongoing health issues, which include diabetes, high blood pressure and a shoulder injury.
“I am very worried about his health. If he dies in the prison … then it will go down in history as the first death of a political prisoner in jail since 1979,” Cheng said, referring to the year the Khmer Rouge were routed from Phnom Penh.
He added that denying bail – a decision which would look like “collusion” with the authorities – could have dire results. “My client would die … [and] the courts are responsible,” he said.
Lawyer Sam Sokong suggested Sokha be put under house arrest, like Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, instead of him being kept in the remote Tbong Khmum prison.
Fellow defence lawyer Ket Khy pointed out that former Khmer Rouge leaders, such as former Foreign Minister Ieng Sary and his wife, former Social Affairs Minister Ieng Thirith, received decent health treatment while awaiting trial for war crimes.
“My client has grown additional bone [bone spurs] and could not sleep well. It’s like a torture to him,” Khy said.
“The doctor said he needed to have an operation on that disease after [last June’s] commune elections, but he failed to go to get the operation because he has been arrested and sent to jail since then.” The lawyers produced a document, purportedly from Raffles Hospital in Singapore, to support their claims that Sokha needed medical treatment abroad.
But the judges were not swayed, with Supreme Court Judge Kim Sathavy saying “the health treatment must be based on the available resource in the country”.
“If the detainees want to have the health services, there must be permission from the prosecutor,” she added.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan on Sunday maintained that if Kem Sokha died in prison, there would be no one to blame but Kem Sokha.
“If Kem Sokha dies in prison, who is going to take responsibility? It is not difficult to understand,” he wrote in a message disseminated to the press. “Kem Sokha is the one responsible, because he dies himself and no one dies with him ... If Kem Sokha really dies, the Royal Government of Cambodia is in charge of the traditional burial and cremation of his body.”
Eysan also appeared to blame the US for Sokha’s deteriorating health, saying the “mastermind” behind his “treason” must be responsible.
Sokha’s failed bid for release comes during a visit from United Nations Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith,who on Wednesday was denied a request to visit Kem Sokha in his Tbong Khmum prison cell. Smith said she was “disappointed” by that decision and reminded Cambodian authorities that they “should not deny me access to any detainees”.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights renewed their call for Sokha’s release last week, saying the “trumped-up charges should never have been brought in the first place”.
The government has countered that Sokha's arrest was a matter of “life or death” for the country.