|Kem Sokha, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in Phnom Penh in March. The United Nations rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said he was concerned that Mr. Kem Sokha’s rights had been breached.Heng Sinith/Associated Press|
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The president of Cambodia’s main opposition party was formally charged with treason on Tuesday, after being accused by the country’s authoritarian government of plotting to overthrow its leaders with the backing of the United States.
The charge comes amid a wider crackdown on dissent ahead of parliamentary elections next year, with a particular focus on groups linked to Washington. If convicted, the opposition leader, Kem Sokha, could be jailed for up to 30 years and his Cambodia National Rescue Party could be dissolved, under the terms of a law amended this year.
Mr. Kem Sokha’s daughter, a party spokeswoman, said the opposition was in severe crisis since her father’s sudden arrest on Sunday, when armed police officers raided his house in the middle of the night and drove him to a remote prison on the border with Vietnam.
The daughter, Kem Monovithya, said her father had been charged by a prosecutor who had traveled to the maximum-security prison, about 120 miles northeast of Phnom Penh.
“We are now very concerned about how much longer the party can function when each person taking the leadership position knows what their fate will be,” she said.
News outlets aligned with the government of Prime Minister Hun Senpublished the names on Tuesday of several other senior Rescue Party officials accused of conspiring in a plot backed by the United States.
“They are in complete fear for their safety,” Ms. Kem Monovithya said.
The treason charge against Mr. Kem Sokha followed the forced closing of at least 15 independent radio stations broadcasting programs from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia — a crucial conduit for news in a country where much of the population resides in remote rice-farming villages.
On Monday, the European Union called the situation a “dangerous political escalation” and asked for Mr. Kem Sokha’s immediate release. Separately, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said in a statement that he was seriously concerned about breaches of Mr. Kem Sokha’s rights and parliamentary immunity.
“I am also concerned that numerous public statements by the prime minister and high-ranking officials about Sokha’s supposed guilt breach the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial to which he is entitled under Cambodian and international human rights law,” Mr. al-Hussein wrote.
After forcing the shutdown of a respected English-language newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, saying it owed $6.3 million in back taxes, the government on Monday barred the publication’s American owners from leaving Cambodia until the bill was paid.
The newspaper’s general manager, Douglas Steele, said on Tuesday that he had retained legal counsel in Phnom Penh. He said he had no intention of leaving Cambodia, and was busy running his family’s nongovernmental organizations, which include a hospital and a charity that builds schools.
“I signed the check to build another school today,” Mr. Steele said. “We have 120 staff at the NGO, at the hospital. I’ve got other things to do.”
Although the State Department has not responded to the charge that the United States colluded with Mr. Kem Sokha, it condemned his arrest, saying his detention appeared to be politically motivated.
Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia, said the Cambodian government seemed to be using laws as weapons to bring down the opposition before the elections.
“The current crackdown is far more extensive than ‘normal’ repression under the Hun Sen regime,” he said.
Although Cambodia is nominally a democracy that holds regular elections, it has been led for 32 years by Hun Sen, a self-proclaimed “strongman” who has methodically consolidated his power.
He has been held in check partly by international donors, including the United States, that have poured billions of dollars of aid into Cambodia, including in health care for the poor and an international tribunal to try the remnants of the Khmer Rouge leadership.
Mr. Thayer noted that the Cambodian economy had grown rapidly over the past decade, and that aid from Western nations could soon dry up — along with conditions the donors attach, which generally include adherence to democratic norms.
At the same time, he said, Mr. Hun Sen views China as “the rising power that is here to stay in the region.” Beijing, which has become Cambodia’s most prolific donor in recent years, was the only foreign government to issue a statement supporting this week’s crackdown.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party is relatively new, having been formed in 2012, but it stunned the government by nearly winning parliamentary elections a year later, with support from a generation of youths seeking greater political and social freedom.
Since then, Mr. Hun Sen has been increasingly vocal about what he insists are plots to overthrow his government via a “color revolution,” fomented by a shadowy force he refers to as “the third hand.”
On Sunday, hours after Mr. Kem Sokha’s arrest, the prime minister said in a speech that it had become clear that the United States was the “third hand” interfering in Cambodian politics.
As evidence of the supposed plot, the government produced a video from 2013 showing Mr. Kem Sokha speaking to a group of Cambodians in Melbourne, Australia, about his desire to bring about political change.
In it, he describes taking advice from American experts on his political career, including a suggestion that he take a break from politics to set up the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which still receives funding from the United States government although he left the group in 2007.
His daughter, Ms. Kem Monovithya, called the charge of treason “ridiculous.”
“Why else would you be in opposition politics if you don’t want to change policies through changing the government?” she asked.