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Cambodia’s ex-opposition leader freed on bail awaiting treason trial

His release came as Prime Minister Hun Sen begins another five-year term after his ruling party’s controversial general election win in July.

The leader of Cambodia’s now dissolved opposition party has been freed on bail after being jailed for a year on a treason charge.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court said in a statement that Kem Sokha was granted bail due to health reasons. It stressed that the case against him would proceed.

He was returned in the early hours of the morning from a prison in eastern Cambodia to his Phnom Penh home, where hundreds of supporters later gathered.

His release came as Prime Minister Hun Sen begins another five-year term after his ruling party’s July general election victory, which was decried as unfree and unfair because the only credible challenger, Kem Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved by the courts and unable to contest the polls.

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Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Hun Sen, who has held power for more than three decades, has a history of cracking down hard on his foes when he is challenged, then easing up when those he finds a threat have been politically neutered.

Hun Sen has denied that recent pardons and releases are due to international pressure, which increased after the controversial election.

The government cracked down on the opposition last year as the ruling party’s prospects for the general election were looking shaky. The opposition had made a strong showing in 2017 local elections, building on its surprisingly strong challenge in the 2013 general election.

Kem Sokha was arrested last September on the basis of years-old videos showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from US pro-democracy groups. His party denied the treason allegation, calling it politically motivated.

The arrest came after a months-long campaign to discredit him over an alleged sex scandal, which involved secretly taped phone conversations mysteriously posted on the internet.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court last November dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party, saying it was plotting with US assistance to overthrow the government. There was little evidence to support its ruling, which was seen as the key part of the campaign to ensure Hun Sen’s re-election.

Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Chan Chen, told reporters that his client could not come out of his house to meet them and his supporters, but conveyed his gratitude for their appearance. He said Kem Sokha preferred not to speak at the moment and had not yet decided if he would seek medical treatment outside Cambodia.

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Chan Chen, Kem Sokha’s lawyer, told reporters his client could not come out of his home to meet them and his supporters (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

At a bail hearing in March, Kem Sokha’s lawyers said he suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, and had fallen sick in prison.

Chan Chen added that Kem Sokha would remain under monitoring by the government.

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