Cambodia still bullying opposition into submission

Supporters of dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party claim they are being unfairly targeted by paranoid regime
Cambodia still bullying opposition into submission

Cambodian police stand posted outside the Supreme Court while supporters of the since-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) gather during a bail hearing of detained former CNRP leader Kem Sokha in Phnom Penh on Aug. 22, 2018. Sokha was arrested on Sept. 4, 2017 and accused of treason, one of many  legal cases lodged against critics and rivals of strongman premier Hun Sen. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

When Sin Rozeth left the Battambang Provincial Court after more than four hours of questioning, over a hundred supporters cheered and chanted her name from behind a police blockade. One even broke down in tears.

"This issue I think is politically motivated, just to disturb me, annoy me, and make me feel unsafe," Rozeth said to the crowd, speaking emphatically and defiantly.

Rozeth and at least 26 other opposition officials were summoned for questioning over allegations they have being continuing their political activities after the forced dissolution of their party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The CNRP was the only viable opposition party that could have democratically challenged Prime Minister Hun Sen's 34-year grip on power. The party made great strides in a 2017 election when 30-year-old Rozeth was elected as chief of O'char commune.

Facing the possibility of defeat at the ballot box, the Cambodian government arrested CNRP president Kem Sokha for "treason" and subsequently dissolved the party.

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Defense lawyer Sam Sokong, who frequently represents CNRP members, told ucanews.com the activists were summoned over possible violations of Criminal Code 523, which prohibits "discrediting judicial decisions."

The authorities' action is also connected to Rozeth's support of CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy, who was named acting president of the party while Sokha is under house arrest.

The authorities claimed that by expressing support for Rainsy, they were undermining the Supreme Court's decision to dissolve the party. This could result in a prison term of up to six months and a fine not exceeding one million riel (US$250).

"The complaint from the Battambang provincial authority claims that the assembly of former CNRP members, and their decision to make a post on Facebook, went against the Supreme Court's verdict," Sokong explained.

"However, my clients deny this as they believe they have the right to gather and meet people, and the right to freely express themselves, according to the constitution and international law."

Sine Rozeth (center) in front of the Battambang provincial court with her mother and supporters. (Photo by Yon Sineat)

 

The first day of questioning was relatively relaxed. Police let friends and supporters gather outside the court and wait. But on the second day, when Rozeth was at the court, the police presence was more significant.

More than a dozen police roped off the block in front of the court and used heavy machinery to cut down trees in the vicinity.

"They blocked it off because of Sin Rozeth, They are afraid of her supporters and are using this as an excuse to beef up the police presence," said one member of the CNRP who was among the crowd. The man asked that their name not be used, for fear of repercussions.

He also pointed out many men wearing civilian clothes mingling with the police officers, and said he feared they were spies.

One of these people he singled out was seen taking close-up photographs of supporters and journalists.

There was a spirit of resistance in Battambang that day rarely seen in other parts of the country.

At one point, a police officer tried to stop journalists and supporters from taking pictures. One supporter simply laughed, patted the officer on the back, and continued to do his work.

Rozeth herself is no stranger to harassment, having faced much obstruction from ruling party officials when she was a commune chief.

For example, she was never allocated her commune budget and was forced to pay for utilities and services out of her own pocket.

After the party's dissolution, the same pattern continued, with one ruling party lawmaker claiming Rozeth's noodle shop was being used as a front to foment rebellion.

"We just want to live in peace. When they dissolved our party and took over the commune, we didn't say anything, we just cried because our party was supported by the people who voted for us," Rozeth said in an interview.

"No law or constitution says we can't meet or gather with our friends and former colleagues. The party was dissolved and the 118 politicians were banned from political activities, but we're not part of (that group) so we haven't been handed any ban."

After the dissolution, the government relaxed its political crackdown, releasing many political prisoners including CNRP politicians.

This period did not last long, however, with opposition politician Kong Mas arrested and charged with incitement in January for supporting economic sanctions against Cambodia.

Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand's Naresuan University, said the initial grace period was just to give opposition supporters the chance to play nice.

"After that, people still perceived as rocking the boat against the regime face trouble. What is happening in Battambang with former CRNP members is an example. The regime is simply showing its opponents that there are limits to any resistance that it tolerates," he said in an email.

Chambers said Rozeth has become a target because she has refused to be cowed or intimated.

"Sin Rozeth represents a thorn in the government's side exactly because she is not afraid to speak out and has a high profile, both domestically and internationally," Chambers said.

"As such, the regime wants to silence her and others as quickly as possible, and perhaps in any way possible."

Six activists were summoned for questioning in Kampong Speu for similar reasons. Those officials, however, fled the country and sought asylum from the U.N.

"I have now been granted asylum in a safe place outside of Cambodia, to get away from the court system in Cambodia," said Kun March, a former CNRP agent who fled.

"I can't give any further comment as I am concerned my family in Cambodia will face further intimidation. If I say more, I worry they will be harmed inside the country," she said.

A file image of Sam Rainsy during a CNRP protest rally in Phnom Penh on Sept. 15, 2013. (Photo by Nico Heu/CC BY-ND 4.0

 

Earlier in May, Rainsy — who called for a popular uprising in June of last year — was also given fresh legal convictions, when the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found him guilty of insulting the king and inciting members of the military to disobey the government.

He has lived abroad since 2015 to avoid a slew of politically tinged convictions.

"Hun Sen really fears the prospect of my return, as announced for later this year," he said in an email to ucanews.com.

"In order to prevent my return, he is using the police and the court to destroy the CNRP grassroots networks that are supposed to welcome me, as was the case on July 19, 2013," Rainsy added.

He was drawing reference to the last time he returned to Cambodia, when he over 100,000 supporters were waiting to welcome him in the streets.

The CNRP and members of the international community quickly denounced these legal maneuvers as a form of harassment.

"The Cambodian government continues to harass numerous opposition officials in the courts, and to threaten them with prison time long after the main opposition party was unjustifiably disbanded," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

"The government should immediately end the political harassment campaign against the CNRP and drop this latest batch of absurd court cases," he added in a statement.

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