PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – A judge in Cambodia on Thursday ordered the release on bail of five human rights workers who had been detained without trial for more than 13 months in a case connected to alleged wrongdoing by an opposition political leader. In a separate case, an appeals court upheld a seven-year prison sentence given to an opposition senator for comments on his Facebook page criticizing a 1979 border agreement with neighboring Vietnam.
Both cases are related to a concerted campaign by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party to cripple opposition politicians by using the courts to get them into legal trouble, seen by many as a tactic to weaken their election chances. Cambodian courts are considered by many critics to be under the influence of the ruling party, an allegation they deny.
Nationwide local elections this month confirmed the dominance of Hun Sen's party, but a strong showing by the opposition boosted its prospects for next year's general election.
Hong Sok Hour, who had been a senator with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was found guilty in November 2015 of falsifying public documents, using fake documents and inciting chaos. He said he had merely reposted documents he found online that indicated that the government had ceded territory to neighboring Vietnam but his conclusion was based on inaccurate translations in the documents.
The opposition party has repeatedly accused Vietnam of encroaching on Cambodian soil, a politically sensitive topic because many Cambodians harbor suspicions about their bigger eastern neighbor, their traditional enemy.
Sam Sokong, the lawyer for Hong Sok Hour, said that because of poor health, his client did not appear in court for the hearing that rejected his appeal.
The case of the so-called ADHOC 5, freed Thursday by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, was involved with an attempt to discredit Kem Sokha, who had been deputy leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party and is now its head. Recordings were leaked on the internet of alleged conversations that suggested he was engaged in at least one extramarital affair, with the woman in question denying, and then asserting, that the allegation was true.
The five — four current members of ADHOC and a National Election Committee member who formerly worked at the organization — were accused of trying to bribe the woman into reversing her testimony again to exonerate Kem Sokha, who was facing defamation cases related to the affair. He was eventually pardoned.
The extended pre-trial detention of the five drew sharp criticism from the United States, the European Union, U.N. agencies and independent human rights groups. It was widely seen as an attempt not just to damage Kem Sokha, but also to intimidate private groups that are critical of the government.
"They have been subjected to a never-ending nightmare of deliberate delays and political manipulation of the judicial system designed to punish them, and intimidate civil society to stifle any criticism of the government," New York-based Human Rights Watch and FORUM-ASIA, a network of human rights organizations, said in April.
Hun Sen has been in power for three decades, and while Cambodia is formally democratic, his government is authoritarian and known for intimidating opponents.
Sam Rainsy, the former top leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was also the target of legal persecution. He was found guilty in absentia of conspiracy to incite chaos and using and falsifying public documents after the material that Hong Sok Hour had put online was also posted on his Facebook page.
Sam Rainsy was eventually forced to resign from his party this year because his legal troubles put it at risk of dissolution under a new law.