Cambodia Jails Opposition Figure as US Congress Takes Step Toward Sanctions

The Cambodia Democracy Act provides for sanctions on officials responsible for uprooting democracy in the country.
Cambodia Jails Opposition Figure as US Congress Takes Step Toward Sanctions CNRP activist Pen Chan Sangkream (R) participates in a protest outside the municipal courthouse in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh in an undated photo.

A Cambodian court has convicted a former commune councilor from the outlawed main opposition party of “incitement to commit a felony” for participating in weekly protests demanding the release of other arrested opposition party members, sentencing him to 18 months in prison, his lawyer said.

The ruling Wednesday came the same day that the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee passed an act calling for sanctions on Cambodian officials responsible for undermining democracy in the Southeast Asian nation — the first step in legislation punishment for abuses in Phnom Penh.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court also ordered Pen Chan Sangkream, an activist for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who served as a local official in the capital’s Daun Penh district, to pay a 3 million-riel (U.S. $728) fine.

Police arrested Pen Chan Sangkream on Dec. 23, 2020, with court officials charging him the same day with incitement to commit a felony for participating in several Friday protests in the capital, organized by family members of detained opposition activists to call for their release.

He was remanded to pre-trial detention in Prey Sar Prison, where he has been for the past seven months.

The “Friday Wives” group of women holds weekly protests demanding the release of their husbands, CNRP members who were jailed on incitement charges for opposing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s crackdown on the party.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple Hun Sen’s government. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win the country’s 2018 general elections.

CNRP activists, their relatives, and their supporters still face backlash, targeted and beaten by anonymous attackers, mostly by motorbike-riding assailants who hit them with batons, bricks, and their vehicles.

Pen Chan Sangkream refused to accept the verdict and asked his lawyer to appeal the decision, said the attorney who declined to be named for safety reasons

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the human rights monitor Licadho, told RFA that the former official did not commit any crime because he was expressing his views under Cambodia’s right of freedom of expression, and that the charge was politically motivated.

“This conviction will lead to more criticisms against the threats, intimidation, and persecution of opposition activists,” he said.

RFA was unable to reach court spokesman Y Rin for comment.

Also on Wednesday, the Tboung Khmum Appeal Court postponed a ruling to Aug. 4 in the case of another CNRP activist, Kong Sam An, who also had participated in the Friday protests.

The 69-year-old, CNRP commune councilor was arrested in September 2020 and sentenced to seven years in jail on “conspiracy” charges. He has been in prison for nearly a year.

Kong Sam An’s wife, Eab Sour, told RFA she was disappointed with the delay because she had gone to the courthouse expecting the ruling on Thursday.

She urged the court to release her husband saying he did not commit any crime.

“Please release him on Aug. 4,” she said. “He is innocent. Let him leave to live peacefully because he has been suffering for almost a year already.”

Am Sam Ath said that the arrest of Kong Sam An was also politically motivated and that he should not have never been convicted in the first place.

“We have seen since the beginning that all these cases have been politically motivated, so the politicians need to have talks or continue their culture of dialogue so we will have hope that all activists will be released,” he said.

Sanctions legislation introduced

In Washington on Wednesday, the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed the Cambodia Democracy Act, which provides for sanctions on officials responsible for uprooting democracy in the country.

The bipartisan legislation introduced by Representatives Steve Chabot and Alan Lowenthal, the co-chairs of the Congressional Caucus on Cambodia, allows the U.S. president to impose sanctions on Cambodian officials deemed responsible for actions that undermine democracy in the Southeast Asia country of nearly 17 million people.

It also allows the president to suspend the sanctions if Cambodia makes significant progress towards ending government efforts to undermine democracy and commit human rights violations.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen and his cronies must face significant consequences from the United States in response to their arrest of Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the opposition party in 2017 — a crackdown that has continued until today,” Chabot said in a statement.

“The Cambodia Democracy Act will hold him accountable and support Cambodians’ legitimate democratic aspirations,” he said.

Sanctions under the act are the “price Hun Sen and his regime must pay for their relentless assault on the freedom of the Cambodian people,” said Lowenthal.

“From shuttering or co-opting the free press, to banishing political opponents, to holding a sham election declaring him the people’s choice, the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen has done everything in its power to destroy any hope of democracy in Cambodia,” he said.

In November a group of U.S Senators publicly called on the Trump administration to impose targeted sanctions against the senior leadership of the CPP under the Global Magnitsky Act that targets perpetrators of rights abuses, arguing that strongman Hun Sen, in power since 1985, was not responding to diplomatic engagement.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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