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Cambodia's ex-opposition leader freed awaiting treason trial

In this June 4, 2017, file photo, then opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha shows off his ballot before voting in local elections in Chak Angre Leu on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) -- The leader of Cambodia's now dissolved opposition party was freed on highly restrictive bail Monday after being jailed for a year on a treason charge, the latest government opponent to be released since Prime Minister Hun Sen's landslide election victory.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court said in a statement that Kem Sokha was granted bail due to health reasons, but stressed that the case against him would proceed.

The court's release order is so restrictive that it amounts to a form of house arrest. The 65-year-old politician may travel only a few blocks from his house; he may not meet former leaders of his party, nor its supporters, nor take part in any rallies; and he is not allowed to meet foreigners, especially those connected with the case against him.

Kem Sokha was taken in the predawn hours from a prison in eastern Cambodia to his Phnom Penh home, where hundreds of supporters gathered later in the morning.

His release came as Hun Sen begins another five-year term as prime minister after his ruling party's victory in a July election which was widely seen as unfree and unfair because the only credible challenger, Kem Sokha's Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved by the courts and unable to contest the polls.

Hun Sen, who has held power for more than three decades, has a history of cracking down hard on his foes when he is challenged, then easing up when those he finds a threat have been politically neutered. Hun Sen has denied that recent pardons and releases are due to international pressure, which increased after the controversial election.

The government cracked down on the opposition last year as the ruling party's prospects for the general election were looking shaky. The opposition had made a strong showing in 2017 local elections, building on its surprisingly strong challenge in the 2013 general election.

Kem Sokha was arrested last September on the basis of years-old videos showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups. His party denied the treason allegation, calling it politically motivated.

The arrest came after a months-long campaign to discredit him over an alleged sex scandal, which involved secretly taped phone conversations mysteriously posted on the internet.

Cambodia's Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party last November, saying it was plotting with U.S. assistance to overthrow the government. There was little evidence to support the ruling, which was seen as a key part of the campaign to ensure Hun Sen's re-election.

Kem Sokha's lawyer, Chan Chen, told reporters Monday that his client could not come out of his house to meet them and his supporters, and had not yet decided if he would seek medical treatment outside Cambodia. His release order indicates that he would need court approval for any travel abroad.

At a bail hearing in March, Kem Sokha's lawyers said he suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, and had fallen sick in prison.

Chan Chen added that Kem Sokha would continue to be monitored by the government.

"While it's a step forward that he's out of detention, he should never have been arrested in the first place," said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia of New York-based Human Rights Watch. "There's been no justice served here, just the temporary release of an opposition political leader that prosecutors could undo at any time."

"We're still a long way from a meaningful restoration of democracy and respect for human rights in Cambodia," he said.

Sam Rainsy, the co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said Monday on his Facebook page that Kem Sokha's release should be followed by more moves by Hun Sen to restore democratic politics to Cambodia.

In addition to Kem Sokha's arrest and the Cambodia National Rescue Party's dissolution, 118 senior party leaders were barred from politics and more than 5,000 party members holding local elected posts were forced out of their jobs.

Sam Rainsy said those measures should be reversed, with the local officials restored to their jobs. He also demanded that the opposition party should be legalized again and that new elections be held, monitored by the international community.

Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha's predecessor as opposition leader, has been in self-imposed exile to avoid serving prison time on a criminal libel conviction that is widely seen as politically motivated.

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