Authorities in Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province arrested two more activists from the country’s banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) over the weekend, bringing to 29 the total number detained since the start of the year.
Ngin Sophat, the CNRP’s provincial secretary for Ratanakiri, and Thoeun Bunthorn, the CNRP’s head of operations for Ratanakiri’s Banlung city, were taken into custody on Saturday amid a flurry of arrests targeting party members since CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy announced that he plans to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile in November to lead a “restoration of democracy” in the country.
The two men were sent to the Ratanakiri Provincial Court on Monday afternoon for legal processing related to their cases, Ngin Sophat’s daughter, Ngin Kungkear, told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that she had made several requests to see her father since his arrest, but was denied permission.
“Had my father committed some kind of wrongdoing, it wouldn’t be an issue, but we haven’t learned anything about the reason for his arrest,” she said.
“The authorities simply said that their boss ordered them to arrest my dad … What has he done wrong?”
She urged authorities to release her father so that he could join his family to celebrate the 15-day Pchum Ben religious festival, beginning on Sept. 27.
Repeated calls to Yin Chamnan, the police commissioner of Ratanakiri province, and the Ratanakiri Provincial Court seeking comment on the arrests went unanswered on Monday.
Ny Sokha, the head of the human rights unit of local rights group ADHOC, called the arrests “politically motivated,” noting that both men had recently posted messages on their Facebook accounts voicing support for Sam Rainsy’s return, which is planned for Nov. 9, despite the opposition chief facing arrest on multiple convictions and warrants he says are politically motivated.
“The arrests further show that there is serious repression of the rights and freedoms of the citizens,” he said.
“I request that the government, and particularly the court, reconsider taking action against freedom of expression during the Pchum Ben festival. Neither man should be detained, and instead should be marking the holiday by doing good deeds with their family members.”
Ny Sokha warned that persecuting CNRP activists “is not a political solution,” and suggested that it could prompt opposition party supporters to stage protests against the government.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime, two months after police arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha and accused him of planning a coup. The opposition leader faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
The moves against the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election. Hun Sen has been in power since 1985.
Authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since Sam Rainsy announced his plans to return to Cambodia, detaining 29 since the beginning of the year and subjecting at least 158 to interrogation over the same period.
Also over the weekend, Pouk Chenda, the chief of Sam Rainsy’s bodyguard detail, was assaulted by two unknown men on Sunday morning who beat him with an iron bar as he returned home from a market near the CNRP’s headquarters in the capital Phnom Penh, leaving him with a serious head wound that required stitches.
“They hit me in the head with an iron bar and then sped off on their motorbike,” Pouk Chenda said, adding that he later filed a complaint with the authorities related to an assassination attempt.
“The authorities don’t seem to take me seriously—I previously was targeted in a grenade attack, but they could not find the perpetrator, so I doubt much will come of this case,” he said, referring to a grenade attack on a rally led by Sam Rainsy in Phnom Penh in March 1997 that left 16 people dead and more than 150 injured.
The bodyguard chief said that he has no disputes with anyone and is no longer involved in any political activities.
Am Sam Ath, of local rights group Licadho, told RFA his organization plans to follow up with Pouk Chenda’s complaint to ensure that authorities take action.
The attack on Pouk Chenda is the latest of more than 10 targeting CNRP activists and supporters in recent weeks—all of which have involved assailants assaulting victims from behind while riding motorbikes.
Political commentator Kim Sok called the attacks part of an “organized plot” by Hun Sen’s government, noting that those targeted are the “core forces” for mobilizing people to receive and protect Sam Rainsy when he returns to Cambodia.
“Hun Sen’s plan is to prevent [the return] first, so that they will not stand up [through protests] against his power,” he said.
The spokesperson of the National Police Commissariat, General Chhay Kim Khoeun, told RFA that the authorities enforce the law equally and without favor, and dismissed claims that they had failed to find the perpetrators of violence against opposition activists in the past.
But Morn Phalla, the head of the CNRP’s executive committee in Phnom Penh, suggested that such repeated attacks are “politically motivated” and called on authorities in the city to launch an investigation, while urging local and international NGOs to monitor the cases.
The latest attack also came as the Serious Crime Unit of Svay Rieng Provincial Police Commissariat on Monday summoned Mao Vibol—the CNRP’s head of Svay Rieng province who fled to Thailand following the party’s dissolution—for questioning related to a “personal issue.”
Mao Vibol told RFA that he would not honor the summons because it would lead to his arrest, as he had continued political activities related to the CNRP after the party was banned.
Svay Rieng provincial commissioner Koeung Khorn told RFA he was too busy to comment on Mao Vibol’s summons when contacted Monday, while Chhay Kim Khoeun, the spokesperson of the National Police Commissariat General said he was unfamiliar with the case.
Sam Rainsy summons
Authorities in Phnom Penh also stuck a summons to Sam Rainsy’s front door on Monday ordering the opposition chief to appear at the prosecutor’s office of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on the morning of Sept. 26 regarding a lawsuit for “public defamation and incitement to commit a felony” filed by government attorney Ky Tech.
The lawsuit for defaming Hun Sen and seeking to destabilize society was filed on Sept. 13, a day after Sam Rainsy gave an interview to RFA’s Khmer Service in which he suggested that Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni “is afraid of Hun Sen and wants to maintain his throne, so there is nothing we can expect from a king who is the puppet of Hun Sen.”
Sam Rainsy was also charged with “insulting the King” after he gave the interview and, last week, Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigative Judge Koy Sao ordered a warrant for his arrest in connection with the charges.
The new order to take Sam Rainsy into custody comes after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in March made public its decision to issue arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy and seven other top CNRP officials living abroad on charges of “treason and incitement to commit felonies.”
The acting CNRP leader has had 14 cases filed against him by government officials in Cambodian courts, six of which have been ruled on.
Despite his ongoing legal issues, Sam Rainsy last week urged Cambodians from all walks of life, including the armed forces, to stand up and join him when he returns on Nov. 9 in freeing the country from Hun Sen’s rule.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.