A court in Cambodia on Wednesday charged a former official of Cambodia’s banned opposition party with inciting the public against King Norodom Sihamoni, days after police arrested him over what they claimed was a “debt to a microfinance institution.”
Sok Chenda, a former member of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) now-dissolved Prey Veng Provincial Council, was taken into custody at his home in Kram village on Monday and sent to an undisclosed location in the capital “without a warrant,” his wife Soun Chanthu told RFA’s Khmer Service at the time, echoing reports of similar tactics used by police to arrest party members in recent months.
On Wednesday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced that Sok Chenda had been charged with “incitement against the king” and ordered him detained awaiting trial.
National Police Spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun told RFA’s Khmer Service that the court charged Sok Chenda over “a Facebook posting,” without elaborating, and said he is being detained at Prey Sar Prison in the capital.
“I am not the person working on the case—I only collect information and present it to you,” he said, adding, “[Sok Chenda] was using social media, not a megaphone.”
Sok Chenda’s wife Soun Chanthu told RFA she works alongside her husband every day and had never seen him posting anything that would have constituted incitement against the king.
She also slammed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government for failing to adhere to the rule of law.
“I don’t know what to do or say—[Sok Chenda] is with the court and so it is up to the court whether it wants him to live or die,” Soun Chanthu said, noting that her husband also suffers from hypertension.
While authorities had claimed Sok Chenda was arrested because of an outstanding debt with a microlender, Soun Chantha and rights groups have said he was likely targeted for his past ties to the CNRP, which was banned by the Supreme Court in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
The ban on the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Sok Chenda resigned from the CNRP shortly after it was dissolved and had since been earning a living collecting recycling.
On Wednesday, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang said that the government had been using the spread of the coronavirus to legitimize the arrests of nearly CNRP members and other critics since the outbreak was first confirmed in Cambodia in January.
“Hun Sen is using the pandemic to crackdown on dissidents,” he told RFA from self-imposed exile.
“This is yet another excuse for the arrest and it is completely inappropriate.”
Meanwhile, Sam Sokong, the lawyer representing the CNRP members arrested since January, told RFA he had visited six of them at Prey Sar Prison on Wednesday and found their health to be seriously deteriorating, with some suffering from hypertension and others experience severe swelling.
“My clients requested that they be released because their arrests were politically motivated,” he said, adding that they were targeted “because they are former CNRP members.”
Sam Sokong said he had already filed an appeal of the decision to reject bail for the 10 who remain in detention. An 11th CNRP member was earlier released due to health reasons.
Also, on Wednesday, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin held a press conference in the capital denouncing any criticism of legislation authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Cambodia, which lawmakers gave final approval of last week.
Speaking to reporters, the spokesman acknowledged that the “Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency” will restrict some freedoms, but said it was for “the good of the country.”
“The state of emergency law was not drafted to restrict people’s rights or to abuse people’s freedom as alleged, but will strengthen rule of law, democracy, and human rights,” he said, without elaborating.
Last week, Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, warned that the “broadly worded language” of the law “can potentially be used to infringe on the right to privacy and unnecessarily restrict freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”
Her statement followed earlier ones by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), which said the law contained vague clauses that would provide Hun Sen with a means to “run the country by fiat,” and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which said it would lead to “gross violations of the freedom to inform and be informed that could have serious consequences during the coronavirus crisis.”
But Chhin Malin said Wednesday that the law “won’t provide the government with too much power” because the country’s one-party National Assembly and Senate will “monitor the executive branch,” without providing details of how they would hold the authoritarian government accountable.
Cambodia’s Constitutional Council is scheduled to meet on Friday, during which the Minister of Justice Koeut Rith will present his defense the law. After the council’s likely approval, the law will be forwarded to the Acting Head of State for approval.
King Norodom Sihamoni is currently in Beijing receiving a medical examination, meaning Senate president and CPP vice president Say Chhum will sign on his behalf.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.