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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Cambodia opposition leader released from prison on bail

Kem Sokha has been in jail for a year after arrest on treason charges

People gather in front of Cambodians opposition leader Kem Sokha's home in Phnom Penh on September 10, 2018. AP Photo
People gather in front of Cambodians opposition leader Kem Sokha's home in Phnom Penh on September 10, 2018. AP Photo

Cambodia's opposition leader Kem Sokha has been released from jail pending a trial on treason charges, as Prime Minister Hun Sen loosens his grip on opponents after sweeping one-sided elections.

Dozens of supporters and media gathered outside Kem Sokha's house in Phnom Penh, where he returned in the early hours of Monday morning from a remote border prison where he had been held.

He was bailed from pre-trial detention on condition that he does not flee proceedings against him, a court in Phnom Penh said. He faces up to 30 years if convicted of treason.

His bail conditions state he must be "confined to a block radius of his residence," his daughter Monovithya Kem said.

Kem Sokha, 65, heads the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only serious opposition to Hun Sen, and his arrest on September 3 last year took out one of the kingdom's few outspoken political figures who can still pull a crowd.

The case against him was widely seen as politically motivated. Just two months later the CNRP was dissolved by a court.

Hun Sen has tightened and relaxed his chokehold on opponents at will during his 33-year rule, most recently launching a broad crackdown in the run-up to July elections that gifted his ruling party an uncontested victory.

The CNRP made major gains during a 2013 election, propelled by significant disatisfaction among Cambodia's large youth population, in a surprise showing that rattled Hun Sen.

But the party was then picked apart by the prime minister, with many of its leading figures fleeing abroad. Kem Sokha's predecessor Sam Rainsy lives in self-exile in Paris to escape a slew of charges that he says are politically motivated.

Western countries - who have long been major aid donors to Cambodia - criticised the most recent election, refusing to send monitors once the opposition was effectively neutered.

The US government has said the election was neither free nor fair and it "failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people".

Last week, as he was sworn in for another term, Hun Sen insisted that the poll was "free, just, fair and transparent".

Since the polls Hun Sen has begun to release critics from jail, a common easing of his grip on power that has followed election wins throughout his time in office.

Fourteen Cambodia opposition supporters jailed for insurrection were released last month.

Faced with criticism over his rights record, Hun Sen has increasingly moved Cambodia closer to China in recent years, with Beijing becoming both a top donor and international investor.

Compared to western nations, Beijing's largesse comes with far fewer strings attached in terms of pushing political freedoms and reform.

A former Khmer Rouge commander, Hun Sen has been seen by some as a stabilising force that helped bring roads and mega-malls to a country ravaged by decades of brutal civil war.

But critics say his long rule has been authoritarian and done little to halt rampant corruption while enriching a clique of families, politicians and business figures who are close to the leader.

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