By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered the release on bail of more than 70 opposition activists arrested in recent weeks and accused of plotting to overthrow the government, he said on Thursday.
Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 34 years, has been under increasing international pressure to improve his human rights record, with the European Union threatening the withdrawal of important trade benefits.
"There are over 70 people, please hurry up work on this case so that these brothers can be released on bail," Hun Sen said in a speech at a new cement factory in the southern province of Kampot, in comments directed at judicial authorities.
Cambodia arrested dozens of people in the run-up to last Saturday, when veteran opposition figure Sam Rainsy had said he would return from self-imposed exile to rally opposition to authoritarian ruler Hun Sen.
But Sam Rainsy did not return to Cambodia, saying he had been stopped in Paris from boarding a flight to neighboring Thailand. He instead flew to Malaysia before arriving in Indonesia on Thursday.
Mu Sochua, deputy of Sam Rainsy's Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) party, dismissed the release of activists as a ruse.
"This is another piecemeal concession tactic of Mr Hun Sen to divide and conquer. He strategically keeps naming Mr Sam Rainsy and associates as traitors attempting to mount a coup," she told Reuters by text message.
Earlier on Thursday, Sam Rainsy told reporters on his arrival in the Indonesian capital that he would meet Indonesian members of parliament and hoped to return to Cambodia "very soon".
"All ASEAN countries are moving toward democracy. Some are moving very fast, like Indonesia, like Malaysia. Some are moving rather slowly. Eventually we will achieve democracy, all of us," he said.
On Saturday, Cambodia also relaxed the house arrest conditions on opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested on treason charges more than two years ago. He says the charges are ridiculous and has called for them to be dropped.
Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy co-founded the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was banned in 2017. By then, Sam Rainsy had flown into self-exile in France after a defamation conviction and other charges he says are political.
The European Union has threatened to suspend trade preferences over a government crackdown on the opposition, non-governmental groups and the media.
On Tuesday, the European Union, which has threatened to suspend trade preferences over a government crackdown on the opposition, non-governmental groups and the media, again voiced concern over rights in Cambodia.
It has set the government a one-month deadline to respond to a preliminary report on the suspension of trade preferences. It will make a final decision in February.
Hun Sen said that in addition to ordering the release of the opposition activists, he had ordered the Justice Ministry to withdraw arrest warrants for other opposition activists who had fled to Thailand or were in hiding in Cambodia.
(Additional reporting by Stanley Widianto in Jakarta; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)