Authorities in Cambodia have arrested one more member of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and charged five others, as a crackdown continues ahead of a planned return from self-imposed exile by the party’s acting president Sam Rainsy next month.
Three police officers in Kampong Cham province’s in Batheay district arrested CNRP activist Dong Sovannarith on Tuesday and brought him for questioning at the provincial police headquarters, despite failing to present a warrant, his wife, Nhorn Sokkeang, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“When I asked him where he took my husband, why my husband was sent to the provincial police, and what my husband did wrong, he said it was because he had been told to do so and that he was just following orders,” she said of a phone conversation with one of the arresting officers.
“I said he had arrested my husband without reason and he hung up the phone. My husband was never involved in any problems … I think this is a political issue because my husband is a CNRP activist.”
Calls to Kampong Cham Provincial Police Chief Em Kosal seeking comment on Dong Sovannarith’s arrest went unanswered on Tuesday, but provincial Deputy Police Chief Heng Vuthy told RFA by telephone that he was unaware of the situation.
“I'm not the one who made the arrest, so you should ask that person,” he said, adding that he did not know the name of the officer.
Ny Sokha, the head of Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA that arresting someone without a warrant is illegal unless the person is a suspect being chased by police, and that warrants are required in order to ensure that the reason for the arrest is made public.
He suggested that the arrest was likely politically motivated because of Dong Vannarith’s association with the CNRP, which Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
“This [activist] was likely arrested for exercising his right to the freedom of expression, which is protected under Cambodian law,” he said.
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 August, when the party announced Sam Rainsy’s plan to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, calling on supporters and members of Cambodia’s armed forces to join him in a restoration of democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.
Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile since late 2015 to avoid what he says are politically motivated convictions and arrest warrants, and Hun Sen has vowed to jail him as soon as he sets foot inside Cambodia.
Police have made multiple arrests in recent weeks, bringing to at least 30 the number of CNRP activists detained since the beginning of the year and at least 158 the number subjected to interrogation over the same period, and prompting calls from Western governments and rights groups for an end to the mistreatment. At least five activists are currently in hiding amid the crackdown.
‘Plotting a coup’
Dong Vannarith’s arrest came after the Oddar Meanchey Provincial Court on Monday charged CNRP activist Mornh Sarath with “plotting a coup” under Article 453 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code after he gave an interview to Voice of America’s Khmer Service four days earlier.
According to a statement issued by the Oddar Meanchey Provincial Court Prosecutors Office, Mornh Sarath allegedly discussed organizing a rebellion with migrant workers from the province who are living in Thailand to coincide with Sam Rainsy’s return.
Anyone involved in supporting Sam Rainsy or a plot to overthrow the government will face five to 10 years in prison if found guilty in a court of law, the statement said.
Mornh Sarath called the allegations against him “unconstitutional,” and said the court is “a puppet of Hun Sen,” while urging Cambodians both inside and outside of the country to “stand together to support Sam Rainsy’s return.”
“The [prosecutor’s office] statement was issued to prevent the public from standing up and accompanying [CNRP acting] president Sam Rainsy home,” he told RFA.
“But the Phnom Penh regime is already a step behind because its poor leadership has caused the people to suffer to an extent that they can no longer endure.”
The Pailin Provincial Court also issued a statement saying prosecutors had charged CNRP activists Ven Dara, Chhun Sithy, Huy Huon, and Khin Ponn with “plotting a coup” on Tuesday after Ven Dara conducted an interview with RFA in August and the other three “offered a venue for a CNRP gathering and posted a statement on Facebook that called on the public to join in overthrowing the government.”
In the statement, prosecutors said the four would be charged under Article 453, but could be eligible for pardon under Article 454 as part of an “exemption,” if they come forward to “confess their crimes in a timely manner.”
Ven Dara, also known as Poch, told RFA that the charges Hun Sen’s government is leveling against those working to protect democracy in the country are “unjust.”
“I would like to call on all people and local CNRP leaders to maintain their support and to accompany Sam Rainsy on his return to the country,” he said.
When asked about the charges facing the four men, Pailin prosecutor Touch Pheakdey told RFA, “I cannot explain these cases to you,” without providing further details.
Regarding the recent arrests and court proceedings, Adhoc’s Ny Sokha noted that many of the nation’s judges and prosecutors belong to political parties.
“We see them both bringing charges and judging the accused, and [their political affiliations] make it impossible for them to be neutral,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pheap Aun, Muong Nareth and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.