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Cambodia turns screw on activists ahead of Rainsy's return

After the opposition leader's pledge to return next month, authorities are arresting and harassing his supporters

Sineat Yon, Phnom Penh

Sineat Yon, Phnom Penh

Updated: October 03, 2019 06:26 AM GMT
Cambodia turns screw on activists ahead of Rainsy's return

Cambodian police are posted outside the Supreme Court compound while Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters gather during a bail hearing of detained former CNRP leader Kem Sokha in Phnom Penh on Aug. 22, 2018. Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and accused of treason. (Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s announcement that he will return from exile in France has sparked a government clampdown on activists.

About 30 former members of Rainsy’s dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been arrested recently and another 160 summoned to face charges.

After living in exile for more than three and a half years, Rainsy says he will return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, the nation’s Independence Day.

“Let’s return to take back our homes, our land and our country from Hun Sen. Don’t let him rob them from us,” Rainsy told supporters in Australia on Aug. 19.

Rainsy, 70, is widely seen as Cambodia’s most important opposition leader. For over 20 years he has challenged the long-lasting rule of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen. In 2013, he and co-leader Kem Sokha came close to victory when the CNRP won 55 of the 123 parliamentary seats. In the commune elections in 2017, the CNRP did even better, winning almost 44 percent of votes.

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But a few months after the commune elections, the CNRP was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court. Kem Sokha is under house arrest on charges of treason, while numerous CNRP members and supporters have been summoned for questioning this year, according to Human Rights Watch. Several CNRP leaders live in self-imposed exile and the Cambodian government threatens to arrest them if they return.

Sun Thun, 52, a former CNRP provincial council member in Kampong Thom province, told ucanews.com that his younger brother Sun Bunthorn, 47, a former CNRP commune council member, was arrested on Sept. 1 without any arrest warrant.

“He was arrested with a CNRP supporter. Authorities did not tell us on what charge or why they had arrested my brother. When they sent him to court, they did not allow me to be at the court and even threatened to arrest me if I did not go away,” Sun Thun said.

Sun Thun suspects his brother’s arrest was related to his expression of support for Rainsy on Facebook. “The authorities aim to scare people to stop supporting Rainsy or joining him in any movement when he returns,” he said.

Sam Sokkong, a lawyer who is defending Sun Bunthorn, told ucanews.com that he is defending six CNRP supporters who were arrested in the last two months.

All have been charged with direct incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security and plotting after a resolution agreed upon by two or more persons to commit an attack. Those found guilty of plotting face a prison term of 5-10 years, which increases to 10-20 years when the offense was committed by a person holding he public authority.

Sokkong said the charges are unjust as his clients were just exercising their right to freedom of expression in line with the Cambodian constitution and the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

United Nations calls for reset

At a U.N. meeting in Geneva on Sept. 25, a human rights expert expressed her concerns about civil and political rights in Cambodia, including a ban on the main opposition party, and called on the government to reset the dial to ensure a fully inclusive society based on democratic principles and human rights.

“It is time to reset the approach to rights and freedoms in Cambodia and ensure that all rights and freedoms voluntarily accepted by the government are enjoyed by everyone in the country,” Rhona Smith, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, said.

“Human rights are, by definition, about people, not politics. The votes and the voice of the 42 percent of the population who voted for the CNRP at communal level remain denied and yet to be remedied.”

Smith reiterated her call for the release of opposition leader Kem Sokha from pre-trial detention and a swift conclusion to the investigation into his case to ensure his right to a fair trial within a reasonable time or for the charges to be dropped.

She also addressed the recent arrests and summonses of over 100 former CNRP members charged with offenses related to engaging in political discussions or activities contrary to the November 2017 decision of the Supreme Court to dissolve the CNRP.

“The summonses and charges against these people are vague and unclear, raising concerns not only for freedom of expression and association and political rights but also for the right to a fair trial,” Smith said.

The United States expressed concern on Sept. 25 over the recent arrests and “repression” of CNRP activists over alleged plots to welcome back Rainsy.

“We continue to urge the Cambodian government to remove undue political restrictions on all persons in Cambodia and to release those prisoners who have been arbitrarily or unlawfully detained, including Kem Sokha,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said in a video statement on Twitter.

Long Botta, a former CNRP member of parliament, said 30 CNRP activists had been arrested and sent to jail and more than 160 others summoned.

“It’s too late for the present ruling regime to change the course of Khmer history. Khmer people have their backs against the wall — they have no choice,” he said.

On Oct. 1, Paylin provincial court summoned four people on charges of direct incitement to commit a felony after they spoke to Radio Free Asia about welcoming Rainsy back to Cambodia. They have fled the country.

Sun Thun said he has learned he is on a blacklist to be arrested after giving a similar interview to Radio Free Asia. “They said today they arrest my brother but next time it will be my turn.”

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