BRUSSELS/PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - The European Union voiced concern at human rights in Cambodia on Tuesday as it gave a one-month deadline to authorities to respond to a report on its investigation before deciding whether to suspend trade benefits.
The European Union has threatened to suspend the trade preferences over a crackdown on the opposition, NGOs and the media by the government of authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country of 16 million for over 34 years.
The European Commission said it had finalised its preliminary report on suspending trade preferences and sent it to Cambodian authorities. It did not publish the report.
“We are very concerned about the human rights situation there,” EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom said on Twitter. “The Cambodians now have one month to respond and we will make our final decision in Feb next year.”
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Koy Kuong confirmed the report had been received, but said there was no comment for now.
In a sign of growing pressure on Cambodia, the government relaxed house arrest conditions at the weekend on opposition leader Kem Sokha, but did not withdraw treason charges against him.
The European Union has threatened the preferential trade terms which Cambodia gets through its Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme that gives 47 of the world’s poorest countries duty-free, quota-free access for all products except arms and ammunition.
The European Union accounts for more than one-third of Cambodia’s exports.
It acted after the arrest of Kem Sokha and the banning of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party ahead of elections last year that were swept by Hun Sen’s party and were dismissed by western countries as a farce.
Any European Commission decision to withdraw preferences would still need approval by the European Parliament and EU member states.
Kem Sokha’s fellow opposition leader Sam Rainsy, 70, met Malaysian lawmakers on Tuesday in a bid to rally support in Southeast Asia.
Rainsy and Kem Sokha, 66, have been locked in a long struggle against Hun Sen, 67, a former Khmer Rouge commander.
Rainsy has lived in self-imposed exile since 2015 to escape a defamation conviction and charges he says are political.
He said he had planned to return home via Thailand at the weekend to rally opposition to Hun Sen, but was barred from a Thai Airways flight from Paris. More than 50 people have been arrested since Rainsy said he intended to return home.
The EU has travelled to nearby Myanmar to raise concerns about human and labour rights, but has stopped short of starting the process to withdraw EBA preferences.
Additional reporting Liz Lee in Kuala Lumpur; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Ed Osmond