BANGKOK - A Cambodian court on Sunday (Nov 10) freed opposition leader Kem Sokha from house arrest while his self-exiled colleagues - facing arrest warrants back home - gathered in Kuala Lumpur.
The conditional release, however, was seen as insufficient by Sokha's supporters and some observers linked it to an attempt to dissuade the European Union from withdrawing trade privileges from Cambodia.
Sokha was arrested and accused of treason in 2017, while he was president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Weeks later, the CNRP was dissolved and its key members banned from politics, paving the way for a clean sweep of all parliamentary seats by Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party in the general election last year.
With this case still pending, Sokha was released on bail in September last year but not allowed to meet his former CNRP colleagues or travel beyond the vicinity of his Phnom Penh home. On Sunday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court lifted earlier restrictions, but banned him from leaving the country as well as from any political activity.
A post uploaded on Sokha's Facebook account on Sunday afternoon read: "I continue to demand that the charges against me be dropped. I expect today's decision to be the first step, but I, as well as many other Cambodians who have lost their political freedom, still need real solutions and justice."
CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy, who is now in Kuala Lumpur, wrote on Facebook that the release of Sokha was "a small step in the right direction toward a resolution of Cambodia's worsening political crisis".
He similarly called for the charge against Sokha to be dropped, and the CNRP - which won 44.5 per cent of the vote in the 2013 election - to be reinstated.
Rainsy, arch-rival of Prime Minister Hun Sen, fled to France in 2015 to avoid jail for defamation, but announced earlier this year that he would return by last Saturday (Nov 9), Cambodia's Independence Day, via the Thai-Cambodian border.
He was, however, denied from boarding a flight to Thailand last week, and instead travelled to Kuala Lumpur.
Political commentator Noan Sereiboth linked Sunday's surprise decision to the EU's review of its Everything But Arms scheme, which gives Cambodia duty-free and quota-free access for all exports except arms and ammunition. The EU is scrutinising Cambodia's human rights record as part of this review.
Noting that Rainsy's failure to return to Cambodia by Saturday had disappointed some supporters, Mr Sereiboth also suggested that the release could be timed to split the opposition.
"It's a tactic to divide Sam Rainsy's and Kem Sokha's supporters," he told The Straits Times.
According to a document circulated online by a CNRP activist, Rainsy has been invited to speak to Malaysian legislators on Tuesday (Nov 12) by parliamentarian Nurul Izzah Anwar, daughter of former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim.
Among other CNRP colleagues with Rainsy in Kuala Lumpur is former CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua, who was detained briefly at its airport on Thursday (Nov 7) as Malaysian officials wrestled over how to handle the opposition politicians without upsetting Phnom Penh.
Ms Sochua was turned away at Thailand's Suvarnabhumi airport last month. Thai premier Prayut Chan-o-cha, announcing his intention to also block Rainsy's entry, reasoned that he did not want Thailand to be used as a base for neighbouring countries' anti-government groups.
The CNRP exiles' widely publicised plans for return, however, sparked off a crackdown in Cambodia, with at least 50 former CNRP members arrested since August. The government also visibly stepped up security, putting armed soldiers, military police and police officers on the streets and at the border last week.