Cambodian authorities are cracking down on efforts to win the release of five people detained in the government’s investigation into a sex scandal involving a leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), RFA’s Khmer Service has learned.
In what appears to be a wide-ranging effort to stymie attempts by the CNRP to win public support for the release of the prisoners, the party activists say local authorities have been interrogating and arresting activists attempting to get Cambodians to sign onto an appeal to King Norodom Sihamoni for the release of the five.
After they were threatened by Battambang provincial authorities, activists with the CNRP postponed their attempt to collect thumbprints for the appeal to the king there, the activists told RFA.
“They accused me of persuading the people to become party members, and that is why they arrested me,” Ny Phoeun, a CNRP official in the province’s Phnom Proek district told RFA. “They threatened me by saying that if I answered correctly, I would be released. If not, I would be detained for 24 hours.”
Ny Phoeun told RFA that Phnom Proek police forced her to sign an agreement on May 24 saying she will stop collecting the thumbprints.
On May 2, Cambodian authorities arrested Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) staffers Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan, and Lim Mony and National Election Committee (NEC) Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakrya. An arrest warrant was also issued for U.N. staffer Sally Soen, but it is unclear if she is in custody.
All are facing bribery or accessory to bribery charges in the sex scandal that has enveloped CNRP acting leader Kem Sokha.
So far, two complaints have been filed related to Kem Sokha’s alleged affair with Khom Chandaraty. Kem Sokha has refused to appear in court in a defamation lawsuit related to the scandal.
Thumbprints and intimidation
Another CNRP activist in Moung Ruessei district said a local police official stopped and interrogated three party activists for two hours while they were attempting to collect local people’s thumbprints on May 24.
“When we went to people’s homes, we told them the reasons and read the document to them, so they understood what they were participating in,” said CNRP member Ut Cheurn.
Phnom Proek District Police Chief Song Sopheak said authorities asked the opposition activists to stop collecting people’s thumbprints, because they were “misleading” the people, and he feared unrest.
“Sometimes they did not tell the people what they told us,” he said. “In fact, they told them something different, and the people did not understand this.”
“Then they printed their thumbs,” he added. “That’s why we took this action.”
Yin Mengly, the ADHOC coordinator in Battambang province, told RFA that the party activists were doing nothing wrong.
“Collecting people’s thumbprints without any pressure, to be submitted to the king seeking his intervention for the release of the detained human rights, National Election Commission, and political officials is not an illegal act,” Yin Mengly told RFA. “It is the people who arrest, intimidate, and detain who are committing the illegal acts.”
Commune council arrest
In Kampot province, Chhuk district authorities arrested an opposition member of the commune council and other activists who collected thumbprints for a petition from people there.
Duong Thol, a Trapeang Phleang commune council member from the Human Rights Party, was arrested on May 24 and was interrogated at police headquarters, while a CNRP activist in Trapeang Kokir, Blaeuk commune, were summoned by the local authorities for questioning on May 25.
Geay Yung, CNRP chief for Kampot province, told RFA that the three were released on May 25 after they were interrogated by police.
“This is an act of tightening and restricting political activities, which is against democratic practice,” he said.
A senior Kampot provincial police official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA the detentions came after local politicians complained that Duong Rhol forced people to thumbprint a petition seeking the king’s intervention.
Duong Thol told RFA after his release that that the accusation was trumped up by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“I brought the petition to the villagers, and read it out loud to them,” he said. “Then I asked them if they dared to print their thumbs on it, but the place where I talked to them is near the CPP commune council.”
He added: “They are upset with our activities so they reported to the police that we forced the people to thumbprint the petition.”
CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann said the CPP is trying to intimidate the opposition party.
In Kampong Cham province, the CPP village chief also collected thumbprints for a petition supporting the CPP, but there were no arrests like there had been for the opposition party, he said.
The government is also threatening the human rights organization LICADHO for listing 29 people as political prisoners on their website. Among them are the five implicated in the government’s investigation into CNRP leader Kem Sokha.
“If we find any exaggeration, misleading information, intimidation, forgery … or if there is something behind it, like political bias or political involvement, LICADHO will be held responsible according to the law,” he said.
Prisoners of conscience
According to an article in The Cambodia Daily, Amnesty International has designated the five held in the Kem Sokha probe as “prisoners of conscience” and is calling on millions of members around the world to petition the government for their release.
Cambodians who have previously been deemed prisoners of conscience—meaning they were jailed for their beliefs or inherent characteristics and have never advocated violence—include land rights advocate Yorm Bopha and activist radio station owner Mam Sonando, the paper reported.
John Coughlan, Amnesty International’s researcher for Cambodia, told the newspaper on Tuesday that the five met the criteria for the designation.
“It is totally transparent that they have been jailed for the human rights work, for working to uphold the rule of law and supporting victims of human rights violations,” Coughlan said, according to the report.
By labeling the five as “prisoners of conscience,” Amnesty International is meddling in a Cambodian criminal investigation, Ministry of justice spokesman Chin Malin told RFA
“The detained ADHOC and National Election Commission official are neither prisoners of conscience nor political prisoners, but they were involved in a Cambodian criminal case,” Chin Malin said. “The demand [for their release] with petitions, with thumbprints, will not have any influence on the court process.”
Reported by Hour Hum, Neang leng and Vuthy Tha for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.