PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian authorities arrested the leader of the main opposition party on Sunday, accusing him of conspiring with the United States to topple the government. The move sharply escalates political tensions in the Southeast Asian nation and raises questions over whether elections due next year can be free or fair.
The party of Kem Sokha, who police detained during a midnight raid on his Phnom Penh home, denied the allegations and said the charges were politically motivated.
The arrest appeared to be part of a broader push by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world's longest-serving rulers, to eliminate his opponents and silence critics ahead of the 2018 vote.
Speaking to 4,000 Cambodian garment factory workers Sunday, Hun Sen claimed Kem Sokha had colluded with the United States against his government and warned the opposition party it could be dissolved if it defended him. He gave no details or evidence, however.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, did not address the allegations against Washington, but issued a statement expressing "grave concern" over the arrest, saying Ken Sokha "has a long, distinguished, and internationally recognized commitment to human rights and peaceful democracy."
Nauert said the detention and "unprecedented" restrictions recently imposed on independent media and civil society "raise serious questions about the government's ability to organize credible national elections in 2018"
Relations between the two countries have deteriorated significantly in recent weeks. Last month, Cambodia expelled the Washington-based National Democratic Institute and ordered local radio stations to stop broadcasting reports from the U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. It has also ordered the English-language Cambodia Daily, founded by an American journalist in 1993, to cease publishing by Monday. It accuses the paper of failing to pay taxes.
Kem Sokha's daughter, Monovithya Kem, who is also a member of his embattled Cambodia National Rescue Party, said her father was taken away in handcuffs after a force of between 100 to 200 officers swept his home in a surprise raid.
Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Khieu Sopheak said Kem Sokha was being held at the Tropeang Phlong prison facility in Tbuong Khmum province, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) east of Phnom Penh. He said the next step will be his court appearance to officially face the charges, which carry a prison sentence of 15 to 30 years.
The government appeared to have based part of its claims against Kem Sokha on a video clip that shows the opposition leader giving a public speech in which he describes a grassroots political strategy to challenge Hun Sen with U.S. support.
The clip, which was released by the government Sunday, was published on YouTube by the Australia-based Cambodia Broadcasting Network in 2013. In it, Kem Sokha says the United States hired university professors and experts in America and Canada "to advise me on (a) strategy to change the leadership" in Cambodia.
The government said the video and other evidence indicated "secret plans of a conspiracy between Kem Sokha ... and foreigners to harm the Kingdom of Cambodia." The statement gave no details but called the actions "treason."
Khieu Sopheak, the interior ministry official, said Kem Sokha had admitted in the video that "he was trained and received funding from a powerful foreign country to topple the government. This is a clear crime and there's no need to make further investigation because he has confessed already."
Mu Sochua, a vice president of the opposition party, insisted the charges were fabricated.
She also said police could not legally arrest Kem Sokha, who as a lawmaker is entitled to parliamentary immunity. She told The Associated Press the arrest violated the constitution but added, "This government has not cared about the law in quite some time."
The arrest "sends a very clear signal that democracy in Cambodia is under severe threat," she said, adding that if Kem Sokha is not released, "it's very clear there will be no free and fair elections" in 2018.
Analysts say Hun Sen, an authoritarian leader who has held a tight grip on Cambodia for more than three decades, has grown increasingly concerned about steady opposition gains at the ballot box over the last decade, including local elections in June.
Legal threats forced Kem Sokha's predecessor, Sam Rainsy, to resign this year from the Cambodia National Rescue Party he once led. He now lives in exile.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the arrest was "an extremely disturbing development and a setback for democracy in Cambodia."
"The government's charges lack credibility, given its long record of misusing its legal system to silence or intimidate critics and political opponents," Sifton said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.