US rights envoy urges Cambodian political talks

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The top U.S. diplomat handling human rights issues called Tuesday for Cambodia’s government to release its political prisoners and resume talks with the opposition in order to ease political tensions.

Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski told reporters that he also has urged the government to thoroughly carry out a promised investigation of the killing of prominent political commentator Kem Ley, who was shot dead earlier this month.

Cambodian officials say the killer confessed to murdering Kem Ley over a debt, but there is a widespread belief he was killed because of his criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. Malinowski, who is on a two-day visit to the country, paid his respects to the slain commentator at the Buddhist temple where his body is being held pending a funeral.

Referring to the detentions of opposition members and workers for non-government organizations, he said the United States encourages the Cambodian government “to release and drop charges against people who were defending the rights and freedom of the Cambodian people.”

For the government to shore up it legitimacy, he said, it must take such concrete steps before local elections next year and a general election in 2018.

Hun Sen’s government last year began cracking down on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party through the court system, which is considered a tool of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

The opposition party’s top two leaders face charges they allege are specious and politically motivated. Other party members and NGO workers also have come under legal and even physical attack.

Foreign Ministry Secretary of State Ouch Borith said he told Malinowski the legal charges were not politically motivated and that the opposition was responsible for the political tension because it broke a 2014 truce with the government by making provocative political statements.

Malinowski told the journalists that the U.S. believes it is important to return to the “culture of dialogue” that was embodied in the 2014 agreement.

“In our view it is very much in the interest of Cambodian people for political dialogue to resume,” he said. “I think it is interest of the government for political dialogue to resume. I don’t think anyone would benefit from continued confrontation.”

He added that both sides would have to work hard and be willing to compromise to make a dialogue work.

Malinowski stressed at a forum with journalists that the United States does not support or oppose any Cambodian political party or movement.

It supports everyone having a fair and equal chance “to express their views, to advance their interests and to compete in the political arena,” he said.