Authorities in Cambodia arrested three more activists from the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Thursday, accusing two of them of plotting a coup after they voiced support for the planned return from self-imposed exile of the party’s acting president, Sam Rainsy.
Police in Kampong Cham province arrested activists Ly Kimheang and On Saven at their homes for “gathering and disseminating information about a plan to topple the government,” according to provincial prosecutor Huot Vuthy, and making plans to join Sam Rainsy for his return to Cambodia on Nov. 9 to lead what the CNRP chief says will be a “restoration of democracy” through peaceful protests.
A fellow CNRP activist in Kampong Cham named Kong Sivong told RFA’s Khmer Service that Ly Kimheang and On Saven are “innocent and haven’t committed any crimes,” suggesting that they were arrested because they refused to defect to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) after the Supreme Court banned the opposition in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The ban on the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
“Neither of them did anything other than work hard to support their families,” Kong Sivong said.
“What about that constitutes an act of treason?”
Also on Thursday, police in Kampong Speu province arrested another CNRP activist named Chhim Marady, although details about the charges against him were not immediately available.
Am Sam Ath, an official with Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA that the arrests are part of a bid by authorities to intimidate political activists, adding that it is not illegal to distribute political information in Cambodia.
“The government simply doesn’t want to have any messages disseminated about Sam Rainsy’s return,” he said.
Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid a string of what he calls politically motivated convictions and charges. In September, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged him and seven other CNRP officials, as well as his wife, with “attempting to stage a coup” in connection with his planned return.
Authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since August, when the party announced Sam Rainsy’s plan to return, calling on supporters and members of Cambodia’s armed forces to join him, but Hun Sen and other leaders in his government have vowed to arrest the CNRP chief as soon as he sets foot inside the country.
Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Preah Sihanouk province-based CNRP activist Mai HongSreang to 18 months in jail on Thursday for “incitement to commit a felony.”
His lawyer Ket Khy called the sentence “unjust.”
“He didn’t commit the crime and I will appeal the case shortly,” Ket Khy said.
The sentence came on the same day that the court set former CNRP Depo II commune chief Seng Sokhon free after she “confessed” to taking part in a plan, orchestrated by the party’s Phnom Penh chief Morn Phalla, to draw support for Sam Rainsy’s return.
The court charged her with “taking part in an act of treason” and allowed her to return home after questioning.
Morn Phalla told RFA after she was freed that Seng Sokhon was “forced to confess.”
“It was a set up through intimidation by the authorities,” he said.
Amid the arrests and court proceedings on Thursday, Hun Sen dismissed the threat of sanctions from Western governments in response to what they have decried as an erosion of democratic freedoms under his ongoing crackdown.
Cambodia’s move to de facto one-party rule drew condemnation from Western governments following the 2018 ballot, with the U.S. imposing visa sanctions on officials seen as limiting democracy in the country and the EU launching a six-month monitoring period that ended in August to determine whether Cambodia should continue to qualify for tax-free access to the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
Hun Sen said Thursday that foreign sanctions would do nothing to limit his government.
“We were hit with sanctions from every directions [40 years ago], but Cambodia didn’t die,” he said, referring to the era of the Khmer Rouge, whose leadership oversaw the killing of nearly two million people during its 1975-79 reign of terror.
“Sanctions don’t kill countries,” added the strongman, who has led Cambodia for more than three decades.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.