The former chief of Cambodia’s now-dissolved opposition party on Friday accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of using the country’s political detainees as pawns in a bid to silence his critics at home and shield himself from international condemnation over an election widely seen as unfree and unfair.
On Aug. 23, Hun Sen said he is mulling a mass release of political detainees that is likely to include a dozen members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—Sam Rainsy’s former party, but that it was contingent upon the opposition putting an end to statements suggesting he is “under pressure” from the international community to do so following the July 29 general election.
The premier also suggested that the prisoners would have to sign statements condemning those who challenge his authority before they could be released.
Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) steamrolled last month’s ballot and secured all 125 parliamentary seats in play, but the victory has been widely dismissed as illegitimate following the dissolution of the CNRP in November and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha two months earlier over an alleged plot to topple the government, and amid a crackdown on the media and NGOs.
In response to Hun Sen’s comments, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a host of what are seen as politically motivated convictions, slammed the prime minister for holding the detainees “hostage” in a bid to muzzle him and other critics of his government.
“Everyone in Cambodia, even the king [Norodom Sihamoni], is held hostage by Hun Sen,” he said during a Friday call-in show with RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Now the detainees are being forced to do what Hun Sen wants against their will. They are compelled to bow down to Hun Sen just to secure their release.”
Sam Rainsy said Hun Sen “can never hold me hostage” and vowed to “continue to speak the truth” about how the prime minister is failing Cambodia.
“The truth is that Hun Sen is under such tremendous international pressure that he has to release the detainees — it’s not a coincidence,” he said.
“Hun Sen pretends that he is a good-hearted person who sympathizes with the detainees. He is not. If he were a good-hearted person, he would not have arrested these people in the first place and would have released them long ago.”
Earlier on Friday, Sam Rainsy wrote in a post to his Facebook page that Hun Sen is “at a dead end.”
“The sham election he arranged has been strongly condemned and his new government lacks a mandate,” he said.
“The international community is mounting more pressure on him to restore democracy and he is desperate for legitimacy, so that is why he announced that he will release more detainees.”
The former CNRP chief suggested that even by releasing all political prisoners, Hun Sen will “still fall short” of satisfying international demands, and will have to reinstate the CNRP and allow its members to take part in politics again before pressure subsides.
The prime minister, who secured another five-year term to add to his 33 years in office after official election results were announced last week, has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.
The U.S. last week announced an expansion of visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision to withdraw funding for last month’s elections.
The European Union, which was the second-largest trading partner of Cambodia in 2017, also withdrew support ahead of the ballot and is currently reviewing a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
Since the election was finalized, King Sihamoni has granted a pardon at Hun Sen’s behest to prominent land activist Tep Vanny and three other campaigners convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab. A court in the capital Phnom Penh, meanwhile, has released on bail to two former RFA reporters who are facing charges of “espionage.”
Social commentator Kim Sok was also freed from prison last week after completing an 18-month sentence for defamation related to his suggestion that the CPP orchestrated the July 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley, although he still faces another defamation charge following a complaint filed by Hun Sen in January.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA that Hun Sen is trying to turn public opinion against Sam Rainsy in Cambodia by making it appear as if the former opposition leader is responsible for the continued incarceration of the political detainees.
“Sam Rainsy is still popular among Cambodians at home, so the more condemnation of Sam Rainy there is, the better Hun Sen feels,” he said.
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the CPP before it was dissolved.
Also on Friday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed Tep Vanny and five other land activists from the Boeung Kak Lake community in the capital a suspended sentence of six months in prison based on a complaint filed in 2012 by a fellow villager, which has since been withdrawn, over an alleged death threat.
The new conviction came four days after Tep Vanny was granted a pardon from the king and released from prison, having served more than two years of jail time on a 30-month sentence for “aggravated intentional violence” while protesting a forced eviction at Boeung Kak in front of Hun Sen’s home in 2013.
Tep Vanny and the other defendants decried Friday’s verdict as “unjust,” given that the complaint had been withdrawn years ago.
“There is no justice for me,” Tep Vanny told reporters after the hearing, saying she has “remained a victim of this unjust court system.”
The land activist said she and the other defendants will appeal the sentence.
Am Sam Ath, the head of investigations for local rights group Licadho, told RFA that “the level of reasonable doubt was high regarding the hearing of this case,” and urged Cambodia’s Appeals Court to reverse the decision.
Tep Vanny was awarded the 2013 Vital Voices Global Leadership Award for her work campaigning on behalf of the community evicted from Boeung Kak Lake, which was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.
A day ahead of Tep Vanny’s latest hearing, Dublin-based Front Line Defenders issued a statement welcoming her release from prison, but said “she should never have been convicted or imprisoned in the first place.”
The group demanded that authorities drop the remaining charges against Tep Vanny and ensure that she will not be subject to any further judicial harassment or reprisals.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.