Cambodian government lawyers filed a lawsuit on Friday to demand the dissolution of the main opposition party, in a move that would help Prime Minister Hun Sen extend his 32-year rule when the poor Southeast Asian nation votes in an election next year.
The attempt to disband the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) comes after its leader, Kem Sokha, was charged with treason following his arrest on Sept. 3.
In their lawsuit on Friday, government lawyers said the opposition had conspired with foreigners to topple the government, citing a 2013 video clip that they say shows Kem Sokha talking about a plan to take power with the help of Americans.
"Today we filed a lawsuit at the Supreme Court on behalf of the Interior Ministry to ask to dissolve the CNRP," Ky Tech, one of the government lawyers, told reporters.
"The CNRP, besides colluding secretly with foreigners … also intends to serve foreigners," the lawsuit said.
Kem Sokha's daughter Monovithya Kem, who is also an official in the opposition party, said in a post on Twitter: "The international community has obligations to act now."
The U.S. embassy said it was unable to comment on the lawsuit filed by the government on Friday, but it had earlier rejected the accusations relating to Kem Sokha.
In the video Kem Sokha talks about having been "assisted" by the U.S. in order to see the kind of change of regime that took place in Serbia to replace Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s.
"I have experts, university professors in Washington, D.C., Montreal, Canada, hired by the Americans in order to advise me on the strategy to change leaders," he says.
Opposition members flee country
Western countries have condemned the opposition leader's arrest and have questioned whether the election can be fair following the crackdown on opposition leaders, activists and journalists. The European Union has made several statements about its concern.
"In that context, dissolution by the authorities of the main opposition party would be an extremely negative step," said EU Ambassador George Edgar in an email to Reuters.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander who defected from the genocidal group and helped drive it from power in 1979, is allied to China, and Beijing says it supports the Cambodian government's efforts to maintain national security and stability.
Half of Cambodia's opposition members of parliament have fled the country. One of the remaining parliamentarians derided allegations that the CNRP had been involved in planning a U.S.-backed coup.
"This is intended to destroy democracy in Cambodia," Mao Monyvann said of the move to shut down the CNRP. The ruling Cambodian People's Party narrowly won the last election in 2013 after losing seats to the opposition in what was Hun Sen's worst election result since Cambodia returned to full democracy in 1998.
The ruling party lost ground in local elections in June, after which, according to opposition members, Hun Sen stepped up a campaign against dissenting voices.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, criticized the international community for not responding more strongly to Hun Sen's crackdown.
"The international community obligated itself to protect human rights and democracy in Cambodia when they signed the Paris Peace Accords, but now they are looking the other way as that dream dies," Robertson told Reuters.
"Prime Minister Hun Sen is effectively putting an end to Cambodian democracy," he said.