Cambodian security forces raided the headquarters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on Thursday as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government appears to be ramping up its efforts to prosecute CNRP members.
The raid by about two dozen heavily armed police marked the boldest attempt yet to apprehend Kem Sokha, the acting head of the CNRP. The opposition politician is facing charges related to an alleged affair and has refused to appear in court in a defamation lawsuit related to the scandal.
“We don’t know whether the authorities have an arrest warrant or not, because they didn’t discuss it with us,” an attorney for Kem Sokha’s defense team, Sam Sokong, told RFA’s Khmer Service. “They just came and they left.”
He added: “We urge the court and relevant authorities to follow the law carefully and not to use it to abuse their power.”
So far, there has been no explanation from authorities in Phnom Penh regarding the armed raid.
A spokesman for the city of Phnom Penh, Ly Sophanna, told RFA the prosecutor in charge of the case is examining the documents and legal procedures for further measures against Kem Sokha.
On May 26, the prosecutor in the case ordered the police to find and arrest Kem Sokha because he twice failed to appear in court when ordered, according to a prosecution document obtained by RFA.
Chheang Von, a senior official with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, told RFA that Kem Sokha is the one causing the problems because he has refused to testify.
“He must appear in court to answer the questions,” he said. “It’s up to him to fulfill his duty according to the warrant summoning him to testify as a witness.”
While Kem Sokha has refused to appear in court or directly address the affair allegations, in a CNRP appearance on May 11 he dismissed the charges as politically motivated.
“Why do they spend so many human resources on my personal issue?” he said at the time. “If it is just solely Kem Sokha’s personal story, they might not spend this much.”
Shortly before the raid, police stopped Kem Sokha’s car, but let it go after they found that he was not in the vehicle, CNRP senior official Eng Chhai Ieng said.
Yim Sovann refused to talk about Kem Sokha’s whereabouts, other than to say he is safe.
He said he did not know what CNRP is going to do next, but said his party wants to solve the issue peacefully.
“To ensure the smooth and fair process of the upcoming elections, the government should stop its persecution of the opposition party,” he said.
Reliable sources from both parties have hinted that there are urgent negotiations going on now, and that authorities have agreed to hold off on arresting Kem Sokha for a day or so.
Thursday’s move by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government marks an escalation in Phnom Penh’s efforts to quell opposition ahead of local and national elections in 2017 and 2018. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party was surprised in the 2013 elections by the strong showing of the CNRP. The CPP lost 22 seats in the legislature compared to the previous election.
There were widespread accusations of voter fraud in that election. Both the EU and U.S. expressed concerns about possible irregularities, and Human Rights Watch issued a statement that read that "the ruling Cambodian People's Party appears to have been involved in electoral fraud.”
Thursday’s raid prompted the U.S. and Swedish Embassies in Phnom Penh to warn citizens to avoid CNRP headquarters.
U.S. wants talks
In a statement published on the U.S. embassy’s Facebook page on Thursday, the U.S. expressed concern about the Cambodian government’s use of armed forces to raid CNRP headquarters.
“The U.S. Embassy is deeply concerned about the recent events in Cambodia,” the embassy wrote in its post. “The deployment of paramilitary forces at the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) headquarters and armed confrontations with CNRP supporters on May 26 are disproportionate and dangerous steps.”
In the post, the U.S. urged the two parties to negotiate an end to the political crises.
“We call on the government to refrain from using unnecessary force and urge the government and CNRP to resume dialogue immediately to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis,” the embassy wrote.
Chheang Von told RFA that negotiations are difficult because the CPP isn’t sure who to talk to, because the CNRP does not have an official chief in the country.
Sam Rainsy, the party president, has been staying in France or traveling since an arrest warrant was issued for him in November over a 2008 defamation case, and he was removed from his office and stripped of his legislative immunity.
But Yim Sovann called that an excuse to stay away from the negotiating table, saying that Kem Sokha has full authority and that CNRP’s leadership is the CNRP’s responsibility.
Speaking to RFA’s live radio show on May 26, CNRP official Eng Chhai Ieng told listeners that Kem Sokha is unwilling to surrender to authorities, because there is no reason for Kem Sokha to turn himself in.
“We have done nothing wrong that requires us to give ourselves up to the authorities,” he said.
He also denied rumors that the CNRP is in the process of appointing a new party chief.
“We work as a team,” he said. “We are not thinking about having a new acting head of the party besides the current acting head of the party, Mr. Kem Sokha."
More petition trouble
Thursday’s raid comes as police arrested a CNRP commune council member in Takeo province as he was collecting thumbprints on a petition asking King Norodom Sihamoni to release four officials with the human rights organization ADHOC and an election commission official who were arrested in connection with the Kem Sokha case.
Kheang Sam Ath of the Human Rights Party was interrogated for two hours and was asked to sign an agreement to stop collecting thumbprints on the petition, CNRP executive committee chief in Takeo province Mao Sophal told RFA. Authorities have been stopping, interrogating and detaining people circulating the petitions for the past few days. Thumbprints are used as signatures in Cambodia.
“I think thumbprinting for a petition to be submitted to the king is not against the law,” Mao Sophal said. “Because thumbprinting people who are unhappy about something and want to submit it to the king or to the national assembly or to the government, is the people’s right.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.