PHNOM PENH: Cambodia's opposition leader Kem Sokha was denied bail by a court Thursday, his lawyer said, in the politician's first appearance since being spirited away to a remote jail on treason charges five months ago.
Kem Sokha was detained in September as part of a sweeping crackdown on the opposition under premier Hun Sen, an authoritarian leader who has clung onto power for 33 years and is determined to win an election in July.
Two months after his arrest Kem Sokha's Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved in a court case slammed by Western democracies as a brazen attempt to clear Hun Sen's path to victory in the upcoming poll.
The opposition leader has since been held in a prison near the Vietnamese border, but was driven to an appeals court in the capital Phnom Penh for Thursday's closed-door bail hearing.
The appeals court rejected the latest bail request, citing the need "to keep Kem Sokha safe and to ensure smooth proceedings" in the case, but did not specify what danger he may be in, according to Choung Chou Ngy, a lawyer for Kem Sokha.
Authorities refused to bring Kem Sokha to an earlier hearing in September when a lower court first rejected his request for bail.
Dozens of anti-riot police were posted outside the court Thursday to block supporters or media from entering, including Kem Sokha's 92-year-old mother, who said through tears that she wanted her son back.
Kem Sokha's lawyer said he was disappointed that the court did not take into consideration the 64-year-old's weak health, saying his client had hypertension and diabetes.
"He has changed a lot, during the first days in detention his spirit was strong but now because of his illness his health is deteriorating a lot," Choung Chou Ngy said.
The government accused the longtime rights activist and politician of conspiring with the US to foment a revolt.
His party, rights groups and the US have slammed the charges as baseless and called for Kem Sokha's immediate release.
After the CNRP was disbanded by a court over the same alleged treason plot, the US and EU pulled support for the July elections, saying they would no longer be legitimate.
But Chinese backing for the poll remains, highlighting the unwavering alliance offered by Beijing through loans and infrastructure projects that leave human rights issues off the table.
Analysts say that Beijing's support has emboldened Hun Sen's unprecedented crackdown on critics in politics, the media and NGOs.
The Economic Intelligence Unit's latest Democracy Index released this week demoted Cambodia from a "hybrid" state to "authoritarian".