Authorities in Cambodia’s Pursat province have taken two activist supporters of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) into custody, prompting the wife of one of the men to call the arrests “politically motivated” and demand their immediate release.
Chan Sophal and his colleague Tuon Sam Ath were arrested in Pursat’s Veal Veng district on the evening of May 28 for alleged engagement in illegal logging and are being held at the provincial prison, Chan Sophal’s wife Pen Savorn told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday. The two men have yet to obtain legal counsel.
RFA was unable to reach provincial court spokesmen Heng Doning or Long Sitha to discuss the arrest of the activists, while Veal Veng district police chief Theang Leng refused to comment Wednesday.
Keo Kim Srong, provincial coordinator for local rights group Licadho, confirmed that the two men had been arrested for “encroaching on state forest land.”
He said that while he is still investigating the details of their case, he believes the arrests could be connected to an earlier order from Prime Minister Hun Sen for authorities in the province to “keep their eyes” on activists connected to the CNRP.
“Since Hun Sen made the comment, CNRP activists in Pursat are living in fear, even if they haven’t done anything,” he said.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court issued a ruling in November 2017 banning the CNRP for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government, paving the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to steamroll a general election in July last year widely seen as unfree and unfair.
Most of the CNRP’s top leadership have since fled into exile to avoid what they say are politically motivated convictions and remain active outside of the country.
But in recent weeks, authorities have summoned dozens of former CNRP officials and supporters in Battambang and Kampong Thom provinces for questioning for allegedly violating the Supreme Court decision after they were seen in public eating noodles together or had expressed support in social media posts for the party’s leaders.
Chan Sophal’s wife Pen Savorn on Wednesday denied that her husband had “encroached on state forest land,” saying he had simply rented an existing plantation to farm because they don’t own any property.
She called on the government to release Chan Sophal, saying she fears he will end up dead in prison like CNRP activist Tith Rorn, who died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody in Kampong Cham province last month.
The 37-year-old activist died on April 18 in what police described as a fall in a jail restroom as the result of being “addicted to alcohol,” though his body bore multiple bruises, raising fears he had been killed by jail guards.
“Even though people can [illegally] obtain land by encroaching on state forest land, my husband always refused to do that,” Pen Savorn said, calling Chan Sophal’s arrest “politically motivated.”
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Ministry of the Interior on Wednesday released a preliminary report backing up police claims that Tith Rorn’s death in prison was the result of an “accident,” and dismissing allegations by the activist’s father that he was “murdered” by authorities.
The ministry had launched a probe into Tith Rorn’s death after the U.S. State Department issued a statement saying Washington was “deeply troubled” by the incident and calling for an “immediate independent investigation.”
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, Kampong Cham Provincial Governor Kuoch Chamroeun said the Ministry of Interior’s investigative committee had questioned prisoners, prison guards and the victim’s family members to reach its conclusions.
“The results of this investigation’s report are no different from those of the first one,” he said.
But Am Sam Ath, head of investigations for Licadho, said his organization had rejected the findings of the new investigation.
“Tith Rorn did not die as the result of an accident,” he told RFA, adding that the wounds on the victim’s body suggest he may have been tortured to death.
“Tith Rorn’s death is still unsolved because of the [kinds of] bruises on his body. The incident is very suspicious.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.