The Supreme Court yesterday dissolved the opposition CNRP on treason charges in a ruling criticised by rights groups as the death of democracy in the country.
Presiding judge Dith Munty announced the decision, adding that 118 senior party members would be banned from politics for five years.
Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to opposition councillors to defect and join the ruling CPP, because the CNRP’s seats would be redistributed between other parties in less than two weeks.
Mr Munty said the Interior Ministry’s complaint against the CNRP was firmly based on the law.
The Interior Ministry requested the CNRP be dissolved following complaints filed by Funcinpec and the Cambodian Youth Party in the wake of CNRP leader Kem Sokha’s arrest on treason charges.
Mr Munty said the fact that CNRP lawyers failed to defend the party at the hearing was tantamount to admitting guilt.
In a televised address, Mr Hun Sen said the ruling party would welcome opposition councillors who wanted to continue working in politics.
“You still have time, for one week or more,” he said. “We will continue to welcome all of you.”
The hearing was conducted publicly but the opposition did not send any statement to the court or assign lawyers to represent the party.
In the court room, general prosecutor Chea Leang said the CNRP’s president Kem Sokha and former president Sam Rainsy had incited people to topple the legal government with the help of the United States.
She said they also made plans to start a colour revolution and supported deadly protests.
“The actions of the CNRP were illegal,” Ms Leang said. “The general prosecutor asks the judges to dissolve the CNRP and ban 118 CNRP members from political activity.”
Hundreds of riot police were deployed around the court complex to prevent people gathering or protesting against the court’s decision. The entrance to the court was barricaded and security in the area was tight.
Phnom Penh police chief General Chuon Sovann, who commanded the forces at the Supreme Court, said the public could participate in the case, but people needed to be checked for security reasons.
“We created the security zones for the safety of the hearing at the Supreme Court,” he said. “Across the world, especially in developed countries, the main issue is terrorism, so our armed forces in Phnom Penh created a security zone.”
Following the dissolution, 55 opposition lawmakers within the National Assembly have automatically lost their seats, although more than half have already fled the country fearing arrest.
Party officials at provincial, district and commune council levels will also lose their positions unless they defect.
Opposition lawmaker Mao Monyvann said the court’s decision meant the end of democracy in Cambodia.
“I have nothing to say. It is completely finished now,” he said, adding the party’s legal team would meet soon to discuss what to do next.
Mr Sokha was arrested in early September over news footage in which he spoke of toppling the government with assistance from the US.
He was charged with treason and could face of up to 30 years in jail. Dozens of senior party senior members fled the country after his arrest.
Kem Monovithya, the daughter of Mr Sokha and also a party official, said the EU, Japan, Australia and the US should withdraw election aid to Cambodia, or become accomplices to the death of democracy in the country.
US embassy deputy spokesman David Josar declined to comment on the dissolution.
“We don’t have a response right now but may get one overnight,” he said.
Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn yesterday met senior EU officer Gunnar Wiegand who was in the country on an official visit.
Mr Wiegand expressed concern about the political situation in Cambodia.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said Mr Sokhonn used the meeting to explain the government’s stance on the opposition party, civil society and press freedom. “The dissolution of the CNRP does not mean Cambodia has become a single-party state. The authorities will share the CNRP’s seats among other parties,” Mr Sounry said.
Mr Sokhonn also told Mr Wiegand the government was committed to holding a free and fair general election next year.
However, rights groups condemned the decision by the court.
“The misuse of the courts to dissolve the CNRP is one of the gravest threats to human rights and representat ive democracy modern Cambodia has seen,” Kingsley Abbot of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists alleged.
Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch said: “This is the death of democracy in Cambodia.”
He called on foreign partners to suspend any assistance for the 2018 polls.
The CNRP was formed after a merger between two opposition parties, the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party, in 2013 and contested the general election that year, winning 55 seats from the total of 123 in the National Assembly.
The party also contested the commune elections in June this year, winning more than 40 percent of seats.