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Cambodian opposition chief arrested after returning from Japan

Two other opposition politicians also detained as Cambodia is rebuked in UN
Kem Sokha (second right), former leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), greets supporters and media at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for the verdict in his trial in Phnom Penh on March 3, 2023. Three senior Cambodian opposition leaders were arrested late last week ahead of minor polls this month.

Kem Sokha (second right), former leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), greets supporters and media at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for the verdict in his trial in Phnom Penh on March 3, 2023. Three senior Cambodian opposition leaders were arrested late last week ahead of minor polls this month. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 13, 2024 05:15 AM GMT
Updated: May 13, 2024 06:25 AM GMT

Three senior Cambodian opposition leaders were arrested late last week ahead of minor polls this month as United Nations members called on Phnom Penh to restore freedom of expression and bolster the country’s dwindling political space.

Sun Chanthy, 44, president of the opposition Nation Power Party (NPP), was arrested at Phnom Penh airport on his return from Japan on May 9 in connection with “an incitement to disturb social order by posting information on social media.”

A justice ministry official said in a statement that allegations against Chanthy included incitement to provoke social chaos by blaming the government for biased practices when issuing identity cards for the poor.

The NPP was forged out of a succession of opposition political parties which have battled the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) at national, commune and minor elections for more than a decade.

They included the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) which was outlawed by the courts in 2017, enabling the CPP to win every seat contested at elections in 2018. The Candlelight Party was formed but was disqualified from contesting the 2023 elections which again resulted in a CPP victory.

The NPP outfit was established by a splinter group within the Candlelight Party and, according to the human rights group Licadho, four of its members are now in custody. Local village and council elections are due on May 26.

Licadho said a separate document from the Phnom Penh prosecutor’s office dated May 7 instructed police to arrest Chanthy and turn him over to the internal security department, adding it was signed by prosecutor Chreung Kmao on the same day the NPP posted a video of Chanthy addressing party supporters in Japan.

Chanthy’s arrest was made as the Candlelight Party said another two of its members, Dum Khun and Sim Sam On, were detained in central Kampong Cham province taking the number of its activists detained by police this year to 10.

It said in a statement that their arrests were a threat designed to intimidate and eliminate legitimate political activities, sentiments echoed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last week when conducting its 46th universal periodic review of Cambodia.

The US has urged the release of former CNRP leader Kem Sokha, and Theary Seng, the Cambodian-American lawyer and Bible editor who was once a supporter of CNRP leader in exile Sam Rainsy. Both are serving lengthy jail terms for plotting to overthrow the government.

Theary Seng is recovering from a hunger strike.

“We urge Cambodia to fully respect civil and political rights and to restore multiparty democracy,” US delegate Kaitlin Sandin said, while urging Cambodia to repeal amendments to the election law, which allegedly restricted political participation and freedom of expression.

Human rights groups say more than 60 political activists are currently incarcerated in Cambodian prisons following politically motivated convictions, a claim rejected by officials in Phnom Penh which insists its courts have enforced the laws fairly and correctly.

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