Cambodian opposition leader meets U.S., French envoys after house arrest lifted

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha met the French and U.S. ambassadors on Monday after his house arrest was lifted, although he remains charged with treason and is banned from politics and leaving the country.

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U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy praised Sokha’s release and urged the government to also free dozens of others who have been jailed in a crackdown by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Sokha’s house arrest was lifted as the European Union considers whether to cut preferential trade terms with Cambodia after a crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled with an iron grip for more than three decades.

It also came days after self-exiled opposition party founder Sam Rainsy increased public scrutiny on Hun Sen in a high-profile return to the region from Paris. He had said he would go to Cambodia despite facing arrest, but stopped in Malaysia.

Cambodian authorities have arrested about 50 of Sokha’s banned opposition party supporters and other activists this year, accusing them of plotting a coup to overthrow Hun Sen.

U.S. envoy Murphy said it was a “source of joy” to meet Sokha, 66, who was arrested on treason charges in 2017 shortly before his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved by the Supreme Court in the run-up to last year’s general election.

Hun Sen’s ruling party went on to win every seat in parliament in the vote.

“I regret that his liberties have been denied these past two years,” Murphy told reporters after meeting Sokha, calling for the government to drop the charges and restore the opposition leader’s political freedom.

He also raised the cases of dozens of others arrested in a sweeping crackdown.

“We urge that they be freed, that they be allowed whether they are inside the country or outside the country, to participate, so that their voices can be heard,” he said.

Earlier, Sokha met French Ambassador Eva Nguyen Binh. The two made no statement after the meeting.

Sokha did not speak to reporters, saying he was not sure if the terms of his release by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sunday allowed him to speak in public.

The crackdown on Cambodia’s opposition prompted the European Union to reconsider trade preferences granted under an “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade programme for least-developed countries.

It is due to receive a preliminary determination on Tuesday on the EBA and Cambodia’s human rights situation.

The EU accounts for more than one-third of Cambodia’s exports, including garments, footwear and bicycles.

Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Christian Schmollinger, Raju Gopalakrishnan