US envoy to Cambodia meets released opposition leader

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia met Monday with opposition co-leader Kem Sokha following his release from house arrest and said further moves toward full democracy would improve relations with the United States.

Kem Sokha of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party was freed Sunday by court order after more than two years in detention without trial. He remains charged and is not allowed to join political activities or travel outside Cambodia, and must comply with requests from the court or the authorities.

U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy said after meeting with Kem Sokha that he told Cambodia’s government that the release was a “step forward,” but it was also important for the authorities to “find a way to restore Mr. Kem Sokha’s entire freedoms and liberties, to drop the charges against him” and do the same for other dissidents denied their freedom.

Murphy said such moves, along with “an inclusive, complete dialogue aimed at broad reconciliation” could put Cambodia “on the path to a full multiparty democracy.”

“That will be good for Cambodia. It will be good for Cambodia’s relations with its neighbors and with my country, the United States,” he said.

Kem Sokha said little to waiting reporters, explaining that he was unsure what could be construed as political and therefore banned by the court order.

He had previously been banned from any unauthorized meetings with foreigners.

Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 on a treason charge for attending an event with an American democracy promotion organization. His arrest led to his party being disbanded.

The court granted him freedom a day after the party’s other leader, Sam Rainsy, tried and failed to fulfill his vow to return from exile to Cambodia. He and other exiled opposition leaders intended to spark a mass movement to oust long-serving authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Kem Sokha and rights activists seek his complete freedom.

“The international community should not be fooled by this token gesture by the Cambodian authorities,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s regional director for East and Southeast Asia. “While it is welcome that Kem Sokha can now leave his home and seek medical attention, the charges against him must be dropped immediately, along with those against the dozens of political activists who have been arbitrarily detained and charged in recent months.”

Sam Rainsy remained in Malaysia on Monday, thwarted in his plan to return to his country.

Cambodia’s government had declared that he and other exiled leaders were not welcome, and asked airlines and neighboring countries to block them.

After he was hindered in his travels, Sam Rainsy arrived too late in the region to make it to Cambodia on Saturday, the country’s independence day.

When it became clear he would not reach his goal, Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng posted a message on Facebook saying he was no longer barred from entry, but would have to face justice on his return, including several convictions and pending cases, all of which Sam Rainsy says are politically motivated.

“I will go back home, of course. It is my right. And also my duty,” he told reporters on Saturday after his arrival in Malaysia.

He has not detailed any new plans. Thailand has previously said it would bar his entry. He had planned to cross by land from Thailand into Cambodia.

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