The president of an influential human rights group in Cambodia called on the country’s minister of justice to resign Wednesday for “turning a blind eye” to what he said was the “arbitrary detention” of his staff members, held amid an investigation into an alleged political sex scandal.
Thun Saray, the head of Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service that bribery charges brought against Yi Soksan, Lem Mony, Ny Sokha and Nay Vanda were “entirely unjustified” and slammed Cambodia’s top justice official for allowing them to remain imprisoned.
“I challenge Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana, who is highly educated, to step down for turning a blind eye to the arbitrary detention of my staff, who are innocent,” he said during a call-in show.
“If I were him I would resign. It’s very sad that there is a lack of conscience in Khmer people like him who blindly follow orders just to keep their posts. They should be ashamed of their acts.”
On Monday, Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld a decision that extended pre-trial detention for the Adhoc officials, saying they pose a threat to stability and could flee if they are released. The four have been held since May while an investigating judge continues to examine their case.
The bribery charges against them, which carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence, stem from traveling expenses Adhoc provided a hairdresser when she sought the group’s help after being named as opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha’s mistress.
The opposition has dismissed the investigation in Kem Sokha’s alleged affair and the several cases connected to it as politically motivated.
On Wednesday, Thun Saray, who has been in Canada since October and failed to attend a Phnom Penh Municipal Court hearing that month on the case involving his staff members, said Cambodia should heed the concerns of the international community over the continued detention of the four Adhoc officials.
“International human rights bodies have voiced their concerns over this injustice,” he said, referring to calls from Wan-Hea Lee, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, and others for their release.
“The government shouldn’t treat that as interference into the internal affairs of Cambodia. This country is bound by several international treaties. The human right workers have done nothing wrong to warrant such arrest and detention.”
Thun Saray also questioned why Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government had targeted groups like his, which work to benefit the people and protect their human rights.
“We educate people on their rights and freedom, and we should be appreciated for this,” he said.
“Instead, we have been treated badly and accused of inciting people.”
In addition to the four Adhoc officials, a fifth alleged accomplice—former Adhoc official and current elections official Ny Chakrya—is also being detained while an investigation continues. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Ny Chakrya’s extended pre-trial detention on March 24.
Culture of dialogue
Thun Saray’s call for Ang Vong Vathana’s resignation came a day after the Adhoc chief posted a video online calling for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to reduce political tension with the CNRP and return to a “culture of dialogue” with the opposition.
He also urged the government to release all “political prisoners” and create a favorable environment for free and fair commune elections, scheduled for June 4 this year.
“As a non-partisan individual, I have seen political tension ratchet up and this raises general concerns over the uncertainty of Cambodia’s future,” he said.
“If the ruling party continues to restrict freedom of expression and suppress opposition parties, Cambodia will stray much further from the democratic path. This will lead to people losing faith in the electoral process and eventually violent competition for power will be inevitable.”
Thun Saray said the CPP cannot rely on the tactics it employed to win previous elections and must change its approach to politics.
“Cambodian voters are like people who are watching a movie—they don’t like bad characters,” he said.
“They sympathize with gentle characters or victims of persecution. The ruling party might win back its support if it plays good characters.”
CNRP officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the June elections through a variety of different measures, including a new law governing political parties and what they say are politically motivated charges against CNRP members.
The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The opposition party won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.
Reported by Sarada Taing for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.