The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia on Tuesday expressed concern over the targeting of a number of former opposition officials, suggesting that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government is engaging in a political witch hunt.
“OHCHR Cambodia is following with concern the situation of former CNRP [Cambodia National Rescue Party] officials who have been summoned or detained by police or the courts,” the agency said in a statement issued on its Facebook page, referring to allegations that the officials had violated a Supreme Court ban on the party in November 2017.
“As the Special Rapporteur, Rhona Smith, said during her recent mission, ‘there is a need to change the political culture to one that focuses on the issues rather than persons. This, together with judicial protection of freedom of expression, would help overcome the challenges of the current political situation for the benefit of all Cambodians,’” the statement said.
Smith, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, concluded her seventh visit to the Southeast Asian nation on May 9 with a list of recommendations for Hun Sen’s government of ways to improve human rights and make the country’s political space more inclusive.
She also called for the release of CNRP president Kem Sokha from de facto house arrest, where he has been held while under investigation for “treason,” though government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed her recommendations as politically motivated and said the fate of Kem Sokha is a matter for the court.
In recent weeks, 35 former CNRP officials and activists have been summoned by the Battambang Provincial Court over violating the ban on the party for its role in an alleged plot by Kem Sokha to topple the government.
To date, 26 have appeared at the court—including four on Tuesday—some of whom told RFA’s Khmer Service that they were questioned over being seen in public eating together last year and expressing support in social media posts for Kem Sokha and acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in France.
Meanwhile, another former 35 CNRP officials and activists in Kampong Thom province have said they were questioned by local police.
Phay Siphan on Tuesday refused to comment on OHCHR’s statement, but said the Supreme Court’s November 2017 decision supersedes any recommendation by the United Nations.
“Cambodia is a sovereign state—no individual or NGO can prevent us from implementing the laws that serve the public,” he said.
Meanwhile, at least 10 members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) interrupted a group of people who had gathered in support of the four former CNRP activists and officials who appeared at the Battambang Provincial Court on Tuesday for questioning in relation to violating the party ban, Battambang Provincial Authority Long Sakhun told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Long Sakhun said that the group “disparaged Sam Rainsy and praised the government” during the confrontation.
Battambang City Mayor Pheng Rithy told RFA he was not aware of any group that had tried to disrupt the gathering of CNRP supporters.
Ying Mengly, a provincial coordinator for local rights group ADHOC, confirmed to RFA that the pro-CPP group had disturbed the gathering and urged that authorities take action.
“This is the first time in 20 years that I’ve seen this” kind of disturbance, he said.
Ny Rumdol, one of the former CNRP activists who was questioned on Tuesday, told RFA after her court appearance that the judge asked her about the private gathering where former CNRP members gathered for dinner in 2018.
“I told them that we only ate dinner together and that I didn’t commit any crimes,” she said.
Activist in hiding
Also on Tuesday, CNRP activist Eam Tith told RFA he is in hiding amid fears for his safety after his son Tith Rorn died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody last month.
Tith Rorn, 37, died on April 18 in Kampong Cham province in what police described as a fall in a jail restroom as the result of being “addicted to alcohol,” though his body bore multiple bruises, raising fears he had been killed by jail guards.
In the weeks since, the CNRP issued a statement rejecting official explanations of how the young man died, and calling on human rights groups and the international community to seek justice for his family.
His death also prompted a statement last week from the U.S. State Department, which said Washington is “deeply troubled” by the incident and called for an “immediate independent investigation,” while also expressing concern over recent judicial proceedings against other former CNRP members and urging the government to release Kem Sokha.
On Tuesday, Eam Tith said police had been “snooping” around his home and asking neighbors about his whereabouts.
“I don’t have any faith in the police because they arrested my son … and he died,” Eam Tith told RFA from an undisclosed location.
“I am afraid, so I fled,” he said, adding that he believes that police tortured and killed Tith Rorn.
Kampong Cham governor Kuoch Chamroeun dismissed Eam Tith’s claims that authorities seek to harm him and maintained Tith Rorn died as the result of an accident.
“It is his right to flee or not flee, but as far as the authorities are concerned, I can guarantee nothing will happen to him,” he said.
Am Sam Ath—head of investigations for the Cambodian rights group Licadho—has said his organization will conduct its own investigation to discover the truth of the circumstances leading from Tith Rorn’s April 15 arrest on a 13-year-old assault charge to the time of his death three days later.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.