PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's government and its opposition faced off in court and on the streets Friday as political tensions around challenges to Prime Minister Hun Sen's long-standing autocratic rule show no signs of easing.
The latest flashpoint is a case in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, who could be sentenced to six months in prison if found guilty of ignoring a summons. Kem did not attend the session that started Friday morning as riot police gathered in front of the court.
Nearly 1,000 opposition supporters had gathered in front of their party headquarters, with riot police watching them from about 500 meters (yards) away.
The case is one of several hanging over leaders of the opposition in what is generally seen as an effort to disrupt their organizing efforts ahead of local elections next June. The next general election is not until the middle of 2018, but holding power at the local level is an advantage when the national polls are held.
Kem appeared before his supporters and said he will continue his struggle "as long as the Cambodian people have still not received their freedom and their safety."
He accused the government of using the court system to stop him from speaking out and to prevent him from taking part in the elections.
A statement issued this week by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern "about the escalating atmosphere of intimidation of opposition politicians, their supporters, civil society, and peaceful demonstrators in Cambodia."
It noted "a host of legal charges" faced by Kem Sokha and 29 other opposition supporters.
It said 14 of them had been given heavy prison sentences despite raise serious concerns about the fairness of the proceedings. "We urge the authorities to adhere strictly to international fair trial standards during the criminal proceedings."
One victim of the legal assault on the opposition has been charismatic opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who did not return from a trip abroad last November when an old conviction for defamation was restored and his parliamentary immunity was stripped by the government's legislative majority. It had been generally assumed that the conviction, carrying a two-year prison sentence, had been lifted by a 2013 pardon which allowed Sam Rainsy to return from a previous period of self-exile. He also faces a stack of separate charges that could put him away for 17 years
Activists and non-governmental organizations, which are generally critical of the government, have come in for similar kinds of legal pressures. Physical force has also been applied. Two opposition lawmakers were beaten up by a pro-government mob last year, and the murder of a prominent social critic, Kem Ley in July, allegedly by a man to whom he owed money, is widely regarded with suspicion.
Kem Sokha has been holed up in his party's headquarters for several months to avoid arrest, protected by a crowd of supporters. Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said he will not appear at Friday's trial because the charges against him are politically motivated and the lifting of his parliamentary immunity was illegal.
The opposition has called on its followers to turn out to protest. It has strong support in the capital and street demonstrations have traditionally been an effective form of push-back. But recent efforts to take to the streets have been thwarted by a government show of force.
Hun Sen has been Cambodia's leader for three decades. But in a general election in 2013, it seemed his grip on power was shaken when the Cambodia National Rescue Party mounted a strong challenge, winning 55 seats in the National Assembly and leaving Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party with 68. The opposition claimed they had been cheated, and staged a boycott of parliament. Seeking to shore up his legitimacy, Hun Sen reached a political truce with them in 2014, making some minor concessions over electoral and parliamentary procedure.
But relations between the government and the opposition deteriorated last year after the opposition tried to exploit a volatile issue by accusing neighboring Vietnam, with which Hun Sen's government maintains good relations, of land encroachment. The move proved politically popular, and the government reacted by stepping up intimidation of the opposition party in the courts, which are seen as being under its influence.
Hun Sen's party was often accused of using violence or the threat of violence against opponents, but in recent years has stalked its foes mostly in the courts. The case against Kem Sokha, involving allegations of illicit love affairs, is an elaborate one.
It began with recordings of intimate phone calls posted anonymously on the internet, and has resulted in a series of charges and countercharges that included an alleged paramour of Kem Sokha being charged with prostitution.