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Cambodia: Supreme Court Dissolves Main Opposition Party

(Dec. 6, 2017) On November 16, 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and placed a five-year ban to effectively preclude 118 CNRP members from participation in any political activity.  (Prak Chan Thul & Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Cambodia’s Opposition Braces for Supreme Court Decision, REUTERS (Nov. 15, 2017).)  The issuance of the ruling was preceded by the arrest of Kem Sokha, the leader of the CNRP, on charges of his party’s “plotting to overthrow the current government with the help of the US government.”  (Id.)

Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) reportedly consider Sokha as posing a major threat to Hun Sen’s hold on to power in the country’s upcoming elections.  The CNRP contends that political motivations are behind the accusations against it and Sokha’s arrest.  (Ram Eachambadi, Cambodia Supreme Court Dissolves Nation’s Primary Opposition Party, PAPER CHASE (Nov. 16, 2017.)  The Court is reportedly headed by a judge who is a member of the CPP.  (Id.)

Reactions

United States government officials have not commented on the ruling, but on November 16, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee agreed by unanimous consent to Senate Resolution 279, “reaffirming the commitment of the United States to promote democracy, human rights, and the rule of law in Cambodia.”  (Reaffirming the Commitment of the United States to Promote Democracy, Human Rights, and the Rule of Law in Cambodia (S. Res. 279), 115th Congress, 1st Session, 168:188 CONGRESSIONAL RECORD (Senate – Nov. 16, 2017); Eachambadi, supra.)  The Resolution states, among other comments, that

  • … the next general election in Cambodia is scheduled for July 29, 2018, and the CPP continues to use intimidation and misuse of legal mechanisms to weaken political opposition and media organizations in order to retain its power;
  •  … the Cambodian parliament in 2017 passed two repressive amendments to Cambodia’s Law on Political Parties that allow authorities to dissolve political parties and ban party leaders from political activity, and which contain numerous restrictions tailored to create obstacles for opposition parties in an attempt to maintain the CPP’s hold on power; [and]
  •  …Kem Sokha, the President of CNRP, was arrested on September 3, 2017, and charged with treason and conspiring with the United States Government to overthrow the Government of Cambodia, and if convicted faces up to 30 years in prison, which sets the stage for the CNRP to be dissolved; … .  (S. Res. 279, supra.)

The Resolution also criticizes “the passage of laws allowing the government to revoke the charters of non-governmental organizations on a political basis, …, the imposition of severe media restrictions and the 2016 assassination of a frequent Hun Sen critic and activist Kem Ley,” while urging the Cambodian government to end harassment and intimidation of the opposition and to foster an environment where democracy can flourish.  (Eachambadi, supra.)

Brad Adams, Asia director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, referred to Hun Sen’s actions to remove the CNRP and its members as “a naked power grab, canceling the votes of millions of Cambodians in previous elections and rendering next year’s national elections meaningless.”  He added, “democracy died in Cambodia today [November 16, the day of the ruling] and it’s hard to see it reviving” as long as the Hun Sen regime holds sway.  (Cambodia: Supreme Court Dissolves Democracy, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Nov. 17, 2017).)

Background: July Amendment of Law on Political Parties

On July 10 of this year, the Cambodian Parliament adopted an amendment, proposed by Hun Sen, to the Law on Political Parties, to ban political parties “from associating with or using the voice, image, or written documents of anyone convicted of a criminal offense,” with parties found to be in violation of this measure to face being “banned from political activities for up to five years and prohibited from competing in elections, or even dissolved.”  (Savi Khorn, Cambodia Signs Controversial Amendment into Law, RADIO FREE ASIA (July 28, 2017).)  The Constitutional Council subsequently approved the amendment, and the Senate President, Say Chhum, who was acting head of state in the absence of the King of Cambodia, signed the legislation into effect on July 28 in a state of “urgency.”  (Id.; Law on Political Parties (promulgated Nov. 18, 1997), REFWORLD.)

The Constitutional Council is the highest-level government body established to guarantee that the Constitution is respected, to interpret the Constitution and the laws adopted by the National Assembly (the lower house of the Parliament) and reviewed by the Senate, and to examine and deliver decisions in litigation related to election of Members of the National Assembly and of Senators.  (What Is the Constitutional Council?, Constitutional Council of Cambodia website (last visited Nov. 30, 2017).)  The Council, which is composed of a president and eight members, has been functioning since June 15, 1998.  (Id.)

As a result of the amendments to the law, CNRP ties with its former president Sam Rainsy have in effect been severed, with Rainsy prohibited from campaigning from abroad for his party.  (Khorn, supra; Prak Chan Thul, Cambodia Changes Election Law Ahead of 2018 Vote, REUTERS (July 10, 2017).)  Rainsy has been living in France since November 2015 in self-imposed exile, to avoid being imprisoned after having been convicted of crimes “widely seen as politically motivated and delivered by courts beholden to Hun Sen’s government.”  (Khorn, supra.)