6 opposition leaders freed from jail after they pledge CPP support

The activists were arrested in September while collecting fingerprints to register a new opposition party.
By RFA Khmer
2023.12.15
6 opposition leaders freed from jail after they pledge CPP support Candlelight Party supporters wave flags during a campaign rally in Phnom Penh on May 21, 2022.
(Prak Chan Thul/Reuters)

Six officials from the opposition Candlelight Party have been released from jail after writing a letter of apology and agreeing to join the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, an opposition activist told Radio Free Asia.

Authorities in the northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey released the six activists on Wednesday, according to former Candlelight Party secretary Suon Khemrin.

“They were released last night,” he told RFA on Thursday. “They have submitted their resignations and defected to the ruling party before they were released.”

In September, police arrested 23 Candlelight Party activists for hosting a rally to collect fingerprints, a necessary step to register new parties. Seventeen activists were released after 30 hours in custody, but six leaders remained in custody.

Authorities detained the activists until this week even though they had already obtained authorization from the Ministry of Interior to form a new party they called the Panha Tumnerp – or Intellectual Modern – Party. 

“There has been criticism from both civil society and the international community that the persecution against political activists is politically motivated and it is not about enforcing the law,” said Soeng Senkaruna, the spokesman for the Adhoc human rights group.

“They should be treated fairly before the law,” he said.

According to the Law on Political Parties, any Cambodian citizen who is aged 18 or older and is a permanent resident of the country has the right to form a political party simply by notifying the Ministry of Interior.

The law states that in order to be valid, political parties must apply for registration with at least 4,000 members, depending on the province where the party is based.

The Candlelight Party had gathered enough support in recent years to become the country’s main opposition party. But its candidates were kept off the July general election ballot by the National Election Committee, which cited inadequate paperwork.

With no real opposition, the CPP won 120 of 125 seats in the National Assembly. 

Efforts by Candlelight leaders to regain official status after the election failed, which has led opposition activists to seek other parties certified by the ministry or consider forming new parties. 

Thach Setha’s appeal

Meanwhile, the Candlelight Party’s 70-year-old vice president, Thach Setha, asked the Supreme Court to overturn his September conviction on false check charges at an appeals trial on Friday.

Human rights groups and party officials have called the conviction politically motivated. His arrest in January was seen as part of a months-long campaign of intimidation and threats against opposition leaders and activists ahead of July’s general election.

Thach Setha was brought to court wearing an orange jumpsuit. Diplomats and officials from the U.N. attended the trial, and about 20 supporters stood outside the court to show their support. 

“He told the court that he is not well,” his wife, Thach Sokborany, told RFA. “In general, he is innocent. I want the court to release him to have his freedom and get treatment.”

The Supreme Court's prosecutor asked the panel judges to uphold the verdict. 

Thach Setha’s lawyer, Son Chum Chhuon, told RFA after the hearing that the municipal court used unfounded evidence in the September trial. He said he hopes the Supreme Court judges will also consider his client’s age and declining health in deciding to set him free.

Because the charges were politically motivated, the judges could consider that releasing Thach Setha would have a calming effect on the country’s political environment, according to Am Sam Ath of human rights group Licadho. 

“Releasing political activists will ease political tension, improve human rights and democracy,” he said. 

The court is scheduled to announce its decision on Dec. 25. 

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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