Several former opposition lawmakers in Cambodia have asked the United Nations human rights agency and other international organizations to stop a ruling party lawmaker from politically persecuting a former commune chief in the northwestern town of Battambang.
The 13 politicians sent letters dated Feb. 12 to Yuji Iwasawa, chairman of the U.N. Human Rights Committee under the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR); Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia; the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union.
They requested that the organizations prevent Chheang Vun of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) from continuing to threaten and harass his main political rival Sin Chanpeou Rozeth of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Sin Chanpeou Rozeth won the O'Cha commune elections last June, becoming the only woman elected as a commune chief in Battambang.
The letter, made public today, noted that after Sin Chanpeou Rozeth took office, she was harassed and bullied by Chheang Vun and other officials who publicly took her to task for minor administrative errors during the start of her tenure and prevented her from building a drainage system in her commune.
When Cambodia’s Supreme Court, controlled by Prime Minister Hun Sen, dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, Sin Chanpeou Rozeth lost her position, forcing her to open a small restaurant to support her family, the letter said.
“This has resulted in her being accused by CPP Member of Parliament Chheang Vun of ‘conducting political activity’ within the premises of her restaurant, based on unfounded allegations that former CNRP members had been seen entering her restaurant," it said.
Chheang Vun also attacked Sin Chanpeou Rozeth on Facebook, saying that her eatery was a gathering place for rebel groups.
“Given the dire state of democracy and rule of law in Cambodia, as well as the myriad of court cases that are being undertaken against members of the opposition and civil society, we are extremely concerned that these allegations could turn into more serious charges,” the letter said.
The opposition politicians requested that the U.N. and other organizations raise their concerns with Heng Samrin, president of the National Assembly, and request that current lawmakers ensure the safety of Sin Chanpeou Rozeth and other CNRP officials still in Cambodia.
'No faith in the judicial system'
In an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service, Sin Chanpeou Rozeth said fewer people have been patronizing her restaurant because they are afraid of being arrested.
When she hung a poster in the shop saying, “Rozeth’s store happily welcomes all customers but the rebels,” local authorities ordered her to remove it.
“At least for four consecutive days after Chheang Vun’s threats, my customers were scared,” she said. “Though they liked my food, they were too intimidated to come to eat at the shop because they were afraid they would be seen.”
Sin Chanpeou Rozeth said she is not considering filing a lawsuit against the members of the ruling elite for persecuting her.
“I have no faith in the judicial system,” she said. “I would like to call on them to stop persecuting me and my business. I am just an ordinary citizen who runs an honest business for a living. … I want to request that ruling party politicians not use threats to intimidate us.”
When the CRNP was dissolved, 55 elected lawmakers and 63 senior officials from the party were banned from politics for up to five years, while the more than 5,000 remaining elected CNRP commune chiefs and district counselors were removed from their positions by the ruling party.
Some lawmakers and other officials have fled Cambodia for fear of their safety, while several members of commune councils have taken refuge in Thailand and other countries.
The action was part of a crackdown on the opposition by Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, to ensure he remains in office following a general election scheduled for July.
In a further measure to stifle the opposition, Cambodian lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously approved amendments that could further limit free speech and political activities and passed a lese-majeste law that makes insulting the royal family a criminal offense.
Thak Lany defamation case
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Supreme Court will hold a hearing on Feb. 26 involving Senator Thak Lany, a Sam Rainsy Party member who went into exile after Hun Sen filed a defamation suit against her.
The senator and others, including former CNRP president Sam Rainsy and social and political commentator Kim Sok, accused the government of being behind the July 2016 assassination of Kem Ley, a prominent political analyst, scholar, and Hun Sen critic.
In November 2016, a Cambodian court sentenced Thak Lany in absentia to one and a half years in prison and fined her fine her 8 million riel ($U.S. 2,000) for incitement and defamation, after she had been stripped of her parliamentary immunity.
Thak Lany has previously denied making the remarks, saying that her comments were edited to make her look like she was lodging the criticism.
Sam Rainsy has lived in exile since 2015 to avoid convictions widely seen as politically motivated. Kim Sok was sentenced in August 2017 to 18 months in prison on charges of defamation and incitement to cause social disorder and ordered to pay hefty fines to the prime minister and the country’s government.
Kem Ley was shot dead in broad daylight when he stopped in a convenience store beside a gas station in the capital Phnom Penh.
Though authorities charged a former soldier with the murder and sentenced him to life in prison, many in Cambodia did not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt.
Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on an RFA call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of Hun Sen’s family.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.