Cambodian Court Tries Opposition Activists, Acting Party Chief Sam Rainsy in Absentia

The six were charged with incitement, falsifying information, causing social chaos, and insulting the government.
2020-12-21
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Cambodian Court Tries Opposition Activists, Acting Party Chief Sam Rainsy in Absentia Supporters of detained CNRP activists call for their release after being relocated away from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Dec. 21, 2020.
RFA

A court in Cambodia on Monday began the trials of five detained opposition activists and their party’s acting chief, drawing around 100 supporters who demanded that authorities drop charges human rights groups have dismissed as “politically motivated.”

Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) acting president Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris, was tried by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in absentia for “falsifying information” regarding the death of former National Police Commissioner-General Hok Lundy and “incitement” for calling on the public to default on microfinance loans amid the financial crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Sam Rainsy had tried to return on Nov. 9, 2019 to lead nonviolent protests against Prime Minister Hun Sen, urging Cambodian migrant workers abroad and members of the military to join him. However, his plan to enter Cambodia from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.

Lors Chhenglay, former CNRP councilor for Battambang province’s Bavil district; Ouk Chhom, former CNRP councilor for Bavil district’s Khlaing Meas commune; Sou Yean, CNRP Tbong Khmum provincial executive committee vice-chairman; and two CNRP activists based in Kompong Cham province attended a hearing at the court Monday on charges of “causing serious social chaos” and “insulting government leaders.”

The five were arrested in July and transferred from their respective provinces to Phnom Penh, where they have been held in pre-trial detention at Prey Sar Prison.

Court officials announced that judgements for the two cases will be pronounced on Dec. 30.

Lors Chhenglay’s daughter Lay Rattana told RFA’s Khmer Service that family members were permitted to observe his hearing inside the court but were not allowed to speak with him. She said the five CNRP activists were “in good spirits,” although some are suffering from deteriorating health due to their age.

Lay Rattana said that none of the five had committed crimes of incitement and urged judges to rule fairly in their case and acquit them of the charges they face.

“There is no proof to confirm that my father committed any incitement,” she said. “During the hearing, they didn’t present any concrete evidence and there was nothing to show that my father had done so.”

“His health is okay but [Ouk] Chhom’s health appears to be deteriorating. He could hardly listen to anything [said during the hearing].”

As the hearings took place, several family members and supporters of the CNRP activists gathered outside the court complex to demand an end to political persecution and the release of all political prisoners.

Sok Bolyma, the wife of jailed CNRP activist Khoeum Pheana, told RFA that security forces barred supporters from protesting in front of the court and ordered them to relocate further away. She said around 100 CNRP supporters came from several provinces to take part in the gathering, during which they raised banners from afar, but dared not approach the court for fear of violent dispersal.

‘Afraid of its own shadow’

A protester from Battambang province named Khut Savey said he is angered by the persecution of the opposition and urged the judges to release all CNRP activists.

“Nowadays, whatever you say can get you accused of incitement,” he said. “As a matter of fact, [the government] is afraid of its own shadow.”

Khut Savey pointed to the ongoing case against CNRP President Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Two months later, the Supreme Court banned the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.

The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Soeung Senkarona, spokesman for local rights group ADHOC, told RFA that both domestic and international civil society organizations consider all cases against opposition politicians to be politically motivated. He called for political solutions rather than the use of the court to end political tensions.

“The courts should not be used for prosecution to ease tension and end political deadlock,” he said.

“There should be political negotiation for the sake of our national interest.”

Last month, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned at least 113 individuals connected to the CNRP to stand trial together, most of whom face charges of conspiracy and incitement to sow chaos in society—crimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Thirty-three of them appeared in court to answer questions on Nov. 26, leading presiding judges to split them into two groups for hearings to be held in January and March.

Hun Sen has said that a reconciliation can take place only when cases in court have concluded.

Call to end violence

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Minister of Interior Sar Kheng warned local authorities Monday to stop using violence to disperse protesters, saying that law enforcement officers must be willing to listen to criticism as well as praise.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony for a new provincial governor in Pailin, Sar Kheng said that authorities must resolve conflicts and protests in a peaceful, non-violent manner, otherwise the opposition could “exploit the situation,” creating a burden for the government.

“If you confront the situation by employing violent measures, it will give them a pretext to further their opposition to the issue—only peaceful measures can end the problem,” he said.

Local rights group Licadho’s chief investigator Am Sam Ath welcomed Sar Kheng’s remarks, which he said are principles practiced in democratic countries, but said that local officials often fail to respond to protests peacefully. He said those who refuse to do so must be held accountable before the law.

“Samdech Sar Kheng’s remarks are good,” he said, using an honorific for the minister.

“But so far, some individual authorities fail to honor such commitments and instead frequently employ violence … [As a result] what Samdech Sar Kheng said is just lip-service, since his local officials fail to honor it.”

Forced into quarantine

Former political prisoner Kong Raiya, who was jailed twice for his outspoken activities against the government, said authorities had taken him and his wife to a local health center in Phnom Penh for a 14-day quarantine for the coronavirus following his return from Thailand, where he had taken political refuge. Police said he had returned on Dec. 19 and took the couple in for quarantine the following day.

He told RFA Monday that he had actually returned from Thailand on Nov. 1, at which point he self-quarantined, and believes the move was made by authorities to bar him from speaking out against the government.

“It has been 51 days already [that I’m in Cambodia]—I haven’t experienced any symptoms of coughing or fever,” he said.

“At the time when authorities came to order me to undergo quarantine, they didn’t listen to my explanation. They just forced me to undergo the quarantine per their instructions.”

Po Senchey Police Inspector Morn Vuthy told RFA that he was “unaware of this issue” and referred further questions to Meth Meas Pheakdey and Or Vanndyn—spokespersons for the Phnom Penh Municipality and Ministry of Health. Neither could be reached for comment on Monday.

The move to quarantine the couple comes after two unknown men assaulted Kong Raiya twice on Dec. 19 while he was traveling alone on his motorbike, leaving him with several injuries. He called on authorities to spend their resources finding justice for him instead of forcing him and his wife into quarantine.

Kong Raiya told RFA that the “authorities who are behind such plots” should stop targeting him.

“Holding different views doesn’t make us enemies—we need reconciliation to live together peacefully,” he said.

“Attacking me, or others, physically won’t cure your mental issues. You will continue to live in fear of your own citizens.”

Around 20 CNRP activists and officials have been physically assaulted since early 2020, mostly by motorbike-riding attackers targeting their heads. Assailants have used batons and bricks, and also their own vehicles, against victims.

None of the perpetrators have been arrested.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Kem Sovannarith. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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