HANOI -- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be bending to European Union criticism over his human rights record, freeing dozens of opposition activists from jail to save an important trade agreement with the bloc.
Roughly 30 already have been released, local media reported. About 70 activists were detained over the past several months on suspicion of planning a coup and other charges. Hun Sen on Thursday said these individuals were tricked by Sam Rainsy, an opposition icon who had planned to return home from self-exile for Cambodia's Independence Day on Nov. 9.
The Cambodian government also freed Kem Sokha from house arrest on Sunday. Kem Sokha led the now-barred opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party after Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in 2015.
Sam Rainsy announced his plan to return to Cambodia in August. He planned to fly into Thailand from Malaysia and cross the border over land, but was blocked from boarding the plane by the Thai government. He instead entered Indonesia on Thursday, and is expected to stay there until Saturday.
Now that Hun Sen is relatively confident he can keep Sam Rainsy from returning to Cambodia, he is loosening his grip on the opposition in a nod to European concerns.
The European Union currently has an Everything But Arms deal with Cambodia, which exempts all Cambodian exports barring weapons from European tariffs. The bloc takes in about 40% of Cambodia's exports. The country shipped $4.6 billion worth of goods to the EU in 2018, much of it in apparel and shoes, according to the World Bank.
But the EU is weighing whether to maintain these perks, given Hun Sen's crackdown against his opponents. On Tuesday, it told Cambodia to submit a plan for improving the situation within a month.
Hun Sen is eager to avoid penalties, as a drop in exports would deliver a major blow to the country's garment industry, a key support base behind his 34 years in power. He has significantly increased minimum wage in the field and visited factories to encourage continued support.
Meanwhile, Kem Sokha met separately with Carmen Moreno, the EU ambassador to Cambodia, and with Japanese Ambassador Masahiro Mikami on Wednesday. The former opposition leader was detained in September 2017 for treason. His party was ordered to disband that November by the Cambodian Supreme Court, and he had been under house arrest since September 2018.