Cambodian opposition erects banners urging leader's release

PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's opposition party on Monday began erecting banners nationwide calling for the release of its leader Kem Sokha, ahead of a bail ruling for the politician who was arrested three weeks ago.

The opposition leader was shunted into a remote prison on treason charges, which his allies have described as part of Premier Hun Sen's sweeping crackdown on dissent in the run-up to 2018 elections.

The self-described strongman has held power for 32 years in the impoverished democracy.

But his popularity slipped in a 2013 election and he has since moved deftly — often leaning on pliant courts — to silence critics in politics, the media and NGOs.

On Monday, a day before a court rules on the legality of Kem Sokha's detention, politicians from his embattled Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) erected a large banner outside their headquarters in Phnom Penh.

The mobilisation comes despite Hun Sen's threats to dissolve the party if they continue to "protect" their leader.

The banners show Kem Sokha waving to a sea of supporters during mass protests organised by the CNRP after the 2013 election, which the party accused Hun Sen of manipulating in his favour.

"We will erect the banners at all our offices in other provinces," deputy CNRP leader Pol Ham told reporters.

The goal was to "find justice for president Kem Sokha", added party whip Son Chhay.

Kem Sokha has been charged with conspiring in a "secret plan" with foreign entities that began in 1993.

Hun Sen has accused Washington of backing the alleged plot, sending relations into a tailspin, with the US ambassador denying the allegation as "absurd".

If Kem Sokha is found guilty, the new banners will have to be taken down under legislation banning parties from "using the voice, images or written documents" of anyone convicted of a crime.

That law, passed earlier this year, was aimed squarely at Kem Sokha's predecessor Sam Rainsy, who is living in exile to avoid a string of convictions he says are politically motivated.

The move was the latest in a long list of legal attempts to box the CNRP in, and sent the party scrambling to paint over Sam Rainsy's face on thousands of signs around the country. — AFP