Cambodia Court Detains Opposition Activist Over Facebook Post, Pending Bail Hearing

khmer-kongmas-011619.jpg Kong Mas is shown in a Facebook photo posted on the day of his arrest, Jan. 16, 2019.
Kong Mas / Facebook

A court in Cambodia’s capital on Friday ordered a member of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) detained pending a bail hearing after questioning him over a post he made on Facebook last month, which said the European Union plans to impose a tariff on Cambodian rice.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court had earlier questioned Svay Rieng province-based CNRP activist Kong Mas in connection with charges of “insulting the government” and “incitement to commit a crime” based on his Facebook post, which also contained comments critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s regime.

After the proceedings, Kong Mas’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the court judge ordered his client detained in Prey Sar Prison ahead of a bail hearing next week.

“The judge ordered my client detained, awaiting further investigations,” he said.

“My client asked the judge for bail and the judge said he will consider it next week.”

Sam Sokong said Kong Mas had stated to the court during Friday’s questioning that his post and comments on Facebook were legal under the guarantee of freedom of expression in Cambodia’s constitution, adding that they were “constructive criticism” and not intended to insult the government.

Kong Mas was taken into custody at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh on Jan. 16 by around 10 officers accompanied by a government prosecutor and told he was being arrested because of a Facebook post he made the same day, although police provided no further details at the time.

In the post, Kong Mas said that EU officials plan to impose a tariff on Cambodian rice of U.S. $200 per ton.

A day later, the EU announced that it would levy the tax on rice from Cambodia and Myanmar for three years, after an investigation found that “a significant increase” in imports of the grain from the countries had “caused economic damage” to European producers.

Cambodia and Myanmar benefit from the EU’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme, which grants them, and other least developed nations, tax- and quota-free access to the bloc’s market.

But the European Commission said that as of Jan. 18, the EU will reinstate the normal customs duty on Indica rice from the two countries of 175 euros (U.S. $199) per ton in year one, following by a reduction to 150 euros (U.S. $170) in year two, and 125 euros (U.S. $142) in year three.

Cambodia’s Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA at the time that his government was unconcerned by the Commission’s announcement, adding that the rice tax would demonstrate that Cambodia is entirely capable of competing with other countries in international trade.

He also said that in order to cope with the new tax, Cambodia’s government will further develop the local market so that it will “be ready for any circumstances,” while encouraging exports to alternative markets, such as the Philippines, and continuing to rely on demand in China.

On Friday, Soeng San Karuna, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that Kong Mas’ Facebook post was ineligible as evidence against him, because Cambodians are guaranteed freedom of expression and have the right to their own opinions.

“The judge should have released him on bail because freedom of expression is guaranteed in the democratic world,” he said.

“[Charging Kong Mas] would only happen in a communist country. If we are a democracy, we must protect the rights of people who are involved in politics, as well as ordinary people.”

Universal Periodic Review

Also on Friday, Soeng San Karuna called on the official Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) to accept and implement hundreds of recommendations made by the international community in Geneva, Switzerland, during the 32nd meeting of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) where Cambodia’s human rights record was examined for the third time on Wednesday.

Keo Remy, president of the CHRC, led a delegation to Geneva for the UPR, during which he told the assembly that Cambodia has worked to promote human rights and strengthen democracy and rule of law, according to a report by the Khmer Times.

He cited a national report on human rights progress in the country which said that, among other guarantees, Cambodians enjoy freedom of expression, but cautioned that “using freedom of speech to commit crimes, such as exaggeration and false allegation, is prohibited.”

“All rights, including the right to development, shall be indivisible and human rights issues must be addressed within the global context through a constructive, non-confrontational and non-politicized dialogue-based approach,” the report said.

Representatives from the international community, however, suggested that Cambodia needs to do more to improve its rights record, and specifically called for greater political inclusion, noting that a ban on the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017 allowed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament following an election in July last year that was widely seen as unfree and unfair.

On Friday, as Keo Remy’s delegation returned to Cambodia, Soeng San Karuna urged the CHRC to honor the 202 recommendations submitted during the UPR, noting that the government had refused to do so following earlier reviews and instead blamed civil society for issuing “fake reports” about rights violations.

“The international community knows all about [Cambodia’s rights record], so the government must accept the truth and make changes that will improve the country’s reputation on the world stage,” he said.

Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, echoed Soeng San Karuna’s call, saying the 202 recommendations are similar to those proposed by local civil society groups.

He noted that Cambodia’s rights record has “worsened” in recent months, and that the government’s representatives to the U.N. are facing increased criticism from other member states of the world body.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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