Cambodian government moves to dissolve opposition party

PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's government on Friday asked the country's top court to dissolve the main opposition party, which is hanging on by a thread after its leader was arrested on treason charges, sending scores of MPs into self-exile.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been battered by a government crackdown that is clearing out rivals of strongman premier Hun Sen ahead of a 2018 election that could have tested his 32-year grip on power.

The government has used a mix of court cases, legal manoeuvres and threats to sideline the opposition's leadership and drive out more than half of its MPs in fear.

The exodus, prompted by the surprise arrest of the party's president Kem Sokha last month, has raised serious doubts about the party's ability to contest next year's election.

Its future was further imperiled on Friday when lawyers from the Ministry of Interior lodged a complaint urging the Supreme Court to disband the CNRP for allegedly violating a controversial political parties law.

"There is strong and sufficient evidence for the Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP," Ky Tech, one of the lawyers, told reporters outside the court house.

"If we keep (CNRP), it will lead to the destruction of the nation, so we must prevent it," he added.

His team accused the CNRP of breaching legislation that prohibits parties from threatening national security, taking orders from a foreign entity or conspiring with individuals whose activities are "against the interest of Cambodia", among other offences.

When the law was passed earlier this year, rights groups warned it was a brazen attempt by Hun Sen to checkmate an opposition that had been making steady gains at the polls.

Pliant courts

Analysts say there is little doubt the Supreme Court will take up the case in a justice system warped by Hun Sen's meddling.

"The judicial system has lost its independence," Cambodian political analyst Meas Ny told AFP.

"If you look at past experiences ... everything will go ahead smoothly (with the lawsuit)," he said.

The legal move comes several weeks after Hun Sen threatened to dissolve the party if its MP continued to "protect" Kem Sokha, the CNRP president who was charged with treason last month.

The politician was detained by hundreds of officers in a dramatic arrest on Sept 3 and thrown into a remote border prison.

The main evidence cited for his case is a publicly available speech from 2013 in which he said he had received US help to build a pro-democracy movement inside Cambodia.

Hun Sen alleges this is proof that Kem Sokha was conspiring in a "secret plan" with Washington to oust the government.

In a message sent through his lawyers on Monday, Kem Sokha blasted the treason charge as "total slander", a view echoed by the US and other democratic countries which have called for his immediate release.

Supporters of Hun Sen say he has brought stability and growth to a nation once plagued by war.

Detractors say corruption and inequality have become rampant under his rule, fuelling support for the opposition and a yearning for change, especially among Cambodia's large youth population. — AFP