Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday lashed out at critics who claimed that the recent arrests of four opposition officials for their alleged roles in a violent protest were politically motivated, saying they had committed criminal acts and must be tried according to law.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations’ envoy on human rights in Cambodia have slammed the arrests as a tactic by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to gain leverage in negotiations over electoral reforms.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said that his government does not take “political hostages,” and that he could not interfere with Cambodia’s court system to release the four CNRP officials.
“Don’t downplay criminal acts to [say the arrests were] politically motivated,” he said, adding that NGOs and the opposition were “taking advantage” of the arrests by claiming so.
“We can’t do anything to manage the courts and we can’t stop the courts from arresting anyone.”
Authorities arrested the four CNRP officials, including party media chief Meach Sovannara, in recent weeks for “inciting violence” during a July 15 protest by party supporters that led to clashes with security forces at Freedom Park in the capital.
A July 22 deal between the CNRP and Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to end a political standoff following disputed elections a year earlier saw the release of opposition members accused of stoking the violence at Freedom Park, but the prime minister said Thursday they had only been “temporarily freed.”
“I would like to clarify that the political deal of July 22 wasn’t a deal to end criminal cases at the court,” he said.
Hun Sen said that CNRP lawmakers who took part in the Freedom Park protest, and who enjoy immunity while serving in parliament, would be subject to arrest after their terms expire.
“Currently, the CNRP lawmakers have immunity, but when they no longer do, the court will prosecute them,” he said.
“We can’t end any court cases. Don’t confuse the July 22 deal with an end to any criminal charges.”
He added that the recent arrests of the four CNRP officials had not broken the terms of the deal and said they would not affect ongoing negotiations between the two parties on electoral reforms.
As part of the July 22 deal, the CPP agreed to reforms of the country’s National Election Committee, or electoral body, which declared the ruling party victor of last year’s polls, despite claims of widespread irregularities.
Negotiations on electoral reforms have stalled, however, and observers say the recent arrests may be part of a bid by the CPP to force the CNRP to back off its demands for broad changes to the system.
Breaking the deal
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday that the arrest of Meach Sovannara and other CNRP politicians ran contrary to the July deal.
“[These cases] are not criminal cases and there should not have been any charges made against them in the first place,” he said.
“The charges should be dropped as it is more important for the two parties to build trust with one another in order to complete the reforms they are working towards.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said it was “obvious” that the ruling party was in breach of the deal by arresting the opposition officials, adding that his party would “hold talks with the CPP to seek a solution” for the release of the four.
On Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court denied a request to release Meach Sovannara, who is an American citizen of Cambodian ethnicity, on bail.
His lawyer Chan Chen called the decision “unjust” and vowed to appeal the ruling.
Also on Thursday, Hun Sen called for a “strengthening of rule of law” in Cambodia following the sentencing last week of seven women to a year each in prison—a day after they were arrested for obstructing traffic while protesting a development project backed by a CPP lawmaker.
The seven had called for government intervention to drain flooding they say was caused by the project in their Boeung Kak community, and placed a bed in the middle of a busy street in the capital as part of their protest—a tactic often employed by demonstrators to draw attention to their plight.
Four others—including a monk—who protested against their arrest, were also taken into custody and sentenced to a year each for “aggravating a rebellion.”
“We can’t forgive them,” Hun Sen said of the seven who obstructed traffic. “People commonly block the roads [in protest] and now it is time for the authorities to take action against such road closures.”
“If you seal off a road, what happens to people such as patients who are using it [to get to the hospital]?”
‘Not about a crime’
But Ny Chakriya, director of local rights group Adhoc’s investigation unit, told RFA that the arrests were “not about any crime.”
“The authorities who arrested the Boeung Kak villagers didn’t base their decision on any criminal acts,” he said.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court should have applied Cambodia’s peaceful demonstration law to the Boeung Kak protesters instead of the traffic law, he added, calling for their release.
Meanwhile, six female CNRP lawmakers visited the jailed Boeung Kak villagers Thursday at Prey Sar Prison.
One of the lawmakers, Mu Sochua, told RFA that she was “concerned about the health of the prisoners,” but added that they are in “good spirits” and praised them for their courage throughout their ordeal.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.