Cambodian leader threatens opposition over arrested chief

FILE - In this June 4, 2017, file photo, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shows off his inked finger after voting in local elections at Takhmau polling station in Kandal province, southeast of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Prime Minister Hun Sen has threatened to dissolve the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party if it entangles itself in the legal proceedings against its chief, charged with treason last week. Hun Sen said Monday, Sept. 11, 2017, that if the investigation into Kem Sokha linked his party to his actions, it would be dissolved.(AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened Monday to dissolve the main opposition party if it gets involved in legal proceedings against its chief, who was charged with treason last week.

Hun Sen also said in a speech in Phnom Penh that if the investigation into Kem Sokha finds that his Cambodian National Rescue Party was linked to his earlier actions, it may be dissolved.

Kem Sokha was arrested on the basis of videos from several years ago showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups. He could face up to 30 years in prison.

His arrest is widely seen as a partisan political effort to hinder the opposition before next year's general election.

Deputy opposition chief Mu Sochua demanded Kem Sokha's immediate release and said the party continues to support him as its leader.

His predecessor as party leader, Sam Rainsy, was forced to resign his post and party membership earlier this year under an earlier threat of having the party dissolved.

Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party have in the past month accelerated the use of legal and administrative measures to undermine critics and political foes.

An English-language newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, was shut down after being accused of not paying a huge tax bill — an assessment it strongly disputed — and more than a dozen radio stations that broadcast dissident voices or used programing from U.S. government-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia were forced to stop broadcasting for alleged breach of regulations.

Most mass media in Cambodia are controlled by the government or business tycoons close to it.

In nationwide local elections in June, the Cambodian People's Party won most constituencies but received a weak majority of the popular vote, while the opposition party made gains.

The opposition had already staged an unexpectedly strong challenge in 2013's general election.

As part of the recent assaults on his opponents, Hun Sen has suggested that the United States conspired with Kem Sokha to try to overthrow his government. He said he wanted to keep history from repeating itself, referring to Cambodia's 1970 military coup — purportedly backed by Washington — that plunged the country into civil war and eventually four years of brutal rule by the Khmer Rouge.

"If this party (the opposition) continues to protect and defend this traitor, it means this party is also involved in treasonous acts and there is no need to allow this party to exist in our democratic society," Hun Sen said Monday. He said it did not matter if one party was dissolved because many other parties would take part in the election.

Hun Sen's ruling party and the main opposition party are the only parties holding parliamentary seats. In this year's local elections, a third party won one of the 1,646 communes contested.

Cambodia's National Assembly, in a session boycotted by the opposition, voted Monday to endorse Kem Sokha's prosecution. The government says Kem Sohka, a member of parliament, was not exempted from arrest by parliamentary immunity because of a legal loophole allowing his detention if he is caught in the act, an apparent reference to the videotapes of him.

Deputy opposition leader Mu Sochua, along with party colleagues and supporters, traveled Monday to Trapeang Phlong prison east of Phnom Penh where Kem Sokha is being held to show their support.

In comments posted on Kem Sokha's Facebook page, she expressed regret that they were not allowed to meet with their party leader, but said the party's lawmakers would make the journey there every Monday in solidarity.

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