Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) are attempting to tighten their grip on dissent as a series of legal battles with opposition lawmakers and human rights officials wind their way through that nation’s court system.
In a closed session on Tuesday, an appeals court in Phnom Penh denied opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Um Sam An’s bail appeal, saying releasing him would cause social unrest because he is a member of parliament and that the court has yet to finish his interrogation, according to the lawmaker's attorney.
While the bail hearing was closed, the lawmaker’s attorney told reporters he planned to ask the supreme court to overturn the decision.
“I see what Mr. Um Sam An has done in the past and he has done nothing that is flagrant or would warrant a charge,” attorney Choung Chou Ngy told reporters after the hearing. “The court charge is not fair. It is not flagrant that Mr. Um Sam An posted [a map] on Facebook. It is over a year already, and it has not caused any social unrest.”
Un Sam Am told reporters his imprisonment violates the Cambodian constitution’s immunity clause for lawmakers.
“The detention of a member of parliament who has immunity, and the decision of the National Assembly violated the constitution, and the prime minister also violated the constitution,” he said.
Political analyst Kem Ley told RFA the CPP always beats up its opponents using the “divide and conquer” strategy, but that people are catching on.
“The violations of law happens time and time again, but the clearer the water is, the better the view the people have so they can see how horrifying the big fish is when he’s biting the small ones,” he said.
On April 12, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court officially charged Um Sam An with two criminal offenses over his accusations that the government and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party conceded land to Vietnam along its border. The court placed him in pretrial lockup for incitement to commit a felony and incitement to cause discrimination.
A picture on his Facebook page still shows Um Sam An and another man holding a map that he claims to have discovered in the U.S. Library of Congress that shows a border between Cambodia and Vietnam that is different from the official map’s border.
Kem Sokha a no show
While Um Sam An is battling Hun Sen’s government over the nation’s border, Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s acting leader, is fighting the government by refusing to appear in court as he faces charges related to an alleged affair.
Also on Tuesday, Kem Sokha, refused once again to show up for a court hearing on the charges.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson, Ly Sophana, told RFA on May 17 via the “Telegram” social network that the prosecutor in the case is examining various documents and procedures as he decides what further legal action to take.
Kem Sokha’s attorneys also declined to show up, and they also refused to comment.
A day earlier, CNRP lawmakers Pin Ratana and Tok Van Chan, who are also charged in the case, likewise avoided the court house.
The CNRP said in a statement that the lawmakers rejected the court order to appear because they have immunity and that the court’s summons violates Cambodia’s constitution.
The lawmakers aren’t the only ones caught up in the legal dragnet Cambodian authorities have cast in the Kem Sokha case.
On May 2, a half-dozen other people were charged for allegedly attempting to hush up the woman at the center of the alleged mistress scandal.
Officials accused four members the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), a member of the country’s election commission, and a UN worker for allegedly instructing the woman to deny her alleged relationship with Kem Sokha.
ADHOC staffers Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony were detained at the notorious Prey Sar prison, while National Election Committee Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakrya is in the custody of the Phnom Penh Police commissioner, officials told RFA.
The fate of UN staffer Sally Soen is unknown, but Cambodian Anti-Corruption Unit chief Om Yentieng has said a warrant was issued for her arrest.
Court officials said the ADHOC workers were charged under Article 548 of the criminal code for bribing a witness, whereas Ny Chakrya and Sally Soen are charged as accomplices.
While the courtroom drama is unfolding in Phnom Penh, authorities in the Mondulkiri province summoned members of four Pnong ethnic communities for questioning about Facebook postings supporting the ADHOC and election official.
On May 8th, about a hundred villagers of Bou Sra commune gathered and took group photos holding placards that they posted on Facebook.
The placard reads: “We, the ethnic minority communities in Mondulkiri province, always have gratitude toward and support Samdech Techo [honorific] Hun Sen. But Samdech please release without any conditions the human rights activists and the senior NEC official. We, the people in the communities, are very regretful to see those human rights defenders have been unfairly accused.”
A village representative questioned by the commune police told RFA that authorities wanted to know if civil society officials were behind the rally and the placard, but Kreung Tola said he told the police it was the villagers’ idea.
“This is normal that the police did their job,” he said. “I think it would not be any problem.”
He said the villagers will continue to rally in support of the imprisoned officials.
“Regarding the law, we did nothing wrong,” he said.
Sok Ratha, an ADHOC official based in Mondulkiri, said he thinks the police were out of line saying they were attempting to intimidate them.
“That seems to violate the constitution and the communities’ rights and freedom of expression,” he said.
Written for RFA’s Khmer service by Tha Vuthy, Sok Ratha and Khe Sonorng. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.