PHNOM PENH: Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was denied bail by the Appeal Court on Thursday (Feb 1), after being allowed to leave jail for the first time since being held in September.
The court's presiding judge Phou Povsun denied bail for the leader of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), upholding an earlier decision, after lawyers for the 64-year-old launched an appeal on Jan 18.
There was a heavy security presence around the court, with journalists and observers from the United Nations and European Union among others prevented from entering, after Sokha was brought from prison in Tboung Khmum province before dawn.
The government-aligned media outlet Fresh News later published images showing Sokha seated inside the courtroom.
The judge ruled that the court needed to keep Sokha in prison due to ongoing court procedures and his own safety, according to Choung Chou Ngy, one of his lawyers.
Chou Ngy expressed his disappointment at the decision, saying his client should have been given bail due to his ailing health condition, the fact he denied all alleged crimes and due to the wide support of Sokha throughout the country.
"For our defence lawyers, the chamber of the Appeal Court’s decision is unacceptable,” he said.
“Seven to eight million people love him. So he has no enemy. We don't need to keep him safe.”
Chou Ngy said Sokha had grown much thinner and weaker since being imprisoned and was struggling with diabetes, high blood pressure and a strain in his left arm that needed surgery.
"His excellency Kem Sokha tried to show his illness but I am sorry that the court did not consider that and did not give him bail,” he said.
This was the first time that Sokha had been brought to the court for a hearing since he was arrested on Sep 3 last year at his home in Phnom Penh’s Toul Kok district.
He was charged with treason after being accused of trying to topple the government with backing from Washington, in a move critics say shows Prime Minister Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of national elections scheduled for 2018.
His charge carries a sentence of up to 30 years in jail if he is found guilty.
His party, widely considered to be a strong national election contender, was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November and 118 senior party members were also barred from politics for five years. The opposition has denied all charges against it.
The latest Democracy Index from the Economist Intelligence Unit judged Cambodia to be slipping towards becoming an “authoritarian” regime, ranking it 124th out of 167 countries.
“Cambodia scored poorly in electoral process and pluralism following the forced dissolution of the main opposition party in November 2017, which turned the country into a de facto one-party state,” read the report.
Chou Ngy said he will discuss with Sokha and other lawyers whether to appeal the decision at the Supreme Court.