Kem Sokha Back Home After Royal Pardon

Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha over the weekend spent his first night at home since May following Friday’s royal pardon for evading court questioning, though a fragile political cease-fire and an open corruption probe mean he may not yet be in the clear.

The acting CNRP president was convicted in September of ignoring multiple court summonses to answer questions as a witness in the prostitution case of his alleged mistress, and eventually handed a five-month prison sentence despite his legal immunity as a lawmaker.

Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha accepts a bouquet of flowers at a meeting with CNRP youth activists at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Sunday. (Ma Chetra)
Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha accepts a bouquet of flowers at a meeting with CNRP youth activists at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh on Sunday. (Ma Chetra)

He appealed the verdict while holed up at party headquarters, where he had been hiding since a botched attempt by police to arrest him there in May. After writing to Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday asking him to arrange a royal pardon, he got his wish the next day.

CNRP lawmaker Long Ry, also head of security for the party, said on Sunday that Mr. Sokha spent his first day and night back home on Saturday.

But the opposition leader was back at party headquarters on Sunday morning to meet with a group of CNRP youth activists visiting from Kompong Cham and Tbong Khmum provinces. He rejected speculation that his pardon was secured with a quid pro quo from the ruling party.

“Some people suspect it was because of the maps, but I can confirm that there was no condition,” he said.

Mr. Sokha appeared to be referring to the map the government is using the demarcate its contested border with Vietnam. The government has admitted to using a map other than the one mandated by the Constitution. Yet the CNRP, which relentlessly attacked the government in the past over the slightest perceived misstep on the issue, has uncharacteristically endorsed the use of the alternate map without calling for a constitutional amendment.

“We agreed together,” Mr. Sokha said of his correspondence with Mr. Hun Sen. “Why? It is because Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen and I have the same goal of finding a joint vision, of creating a future of national unity.”

Now free from imminent arrest, Mr. Sokha said he was making plans to visit the provinces and reconnect with the party’s “grassroots” once he pays a courtesy visit to King Norodom Sihamoni and meets with the opposition members and rights activists currently in prison.

Local rights group Licadho says there are currently 27 such “political prisoners” behind bars on charges widely seen as politically motivated. Mr. Sokha said the party was hoping to secure royal pardons for them as well, but did not elaborate.

His own pardon may not be as secure a guarantee of freedom as he would like, however.

The Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), which investigated his alleged mistress for prostitution and Mr. Sokha himself over allegations that he paid her with party funds, has made no mention of dropping its probes.

The ACU could not be reached for comment on Sunday.

But political analyst Cham Bunthet said the government could easily reanimate the ACU investigations to put pressure back on Mr. Sokha if the current political detente deteriorates.

“It’s political, so it depends. If the political heat rises again, the legal action will come again,” he said. “The message is: ‘If you stand strong, I will bring you back to court.’”

Mr. Bunthet said the government may have pardoned Mr. Sokha—as he claimed—without securing any specific concessions in return, satisfied that the CNRP was sufficiently tamed for the time being. But he thought it unlikely.

“Politically, Kem Sokha must say that. But I think there was a deal behind that,” he said.

“For the past 20 years, there has been no deal without [the CPP] getting some kind of benefit,” he added. “Experience shows that.”

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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