Fifteen Cambodians imprisoned on charges widely viewed as politically motivated are suffering as the result of undue punishment in jail, according to two opposition officials who visited them Tuesday.
Son Chhay, the former chief whip of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and Tie Vannol, president of the Candle Light Party, spoke with the 15 imprisoned CNRP members, supporters and activists during their monthly visit them at Prey Sar Prison and deliver donations from supporters.
Eleven of the 15 have been incarcerated since 2014 for their alleged role in a July 15, 2014 demonstration held by the CNRP against government manipulation of the general election a year earlier, and restrictions on peaceful assembly, that turned violent when police tried to forcibly remove protesters. In July 2015, they received sentences for “insurrection” of from seven to 20 years in prison.
The other three—Roeun Chantra, Yun Kim Huor, and Yea Thong—were initially arrested for their participation in the demonstration, but were convicted in cases related to comments they posted on their Facebook accounts and have been in prison for more than two years.
Son Chhay told RFA’s Khmer Service after the visit that the prisoners were being denied basic rights in jail.
“These 15 people should not face such punishments such as being denied access to radios, or paper to write down their thoughts, or from meeting with their families in a normal manner because a huge glass barrier was installed [at the visitation room] … and they can only read each other’s lips,” he said.
“Also, when these 15 prisoners are allowed to leave their individual cells for outdoor exercise, once they come out, they are placed in another similar kind of cell, meaning that they may not walk freely outside before returning to their own cell.”
Son Chhay said that the prisoners had complained to prison officials, but that the officials told him that changes could only be made to their treatment on the guidance of the chief of the prison department.
“However, the chief of the prison department is apparently afraid of [Prime Minister Hun Sen] after the prime minister blamed him for a previous mistake,” he said.
“That is why he is punishing these 15 people so severely, and I want the Ministry of Interior or the prime minister to be made aware of this, so that they reconsider their cases. Such treatment is above and beyond their punishment, and their cases should be reviewed for their release.”
Earlier this month, New York-based Human Rights Watch had called on Cambodia to “quash the politically motivated ‘insurrection’ convictions” against 11 of the CNRP members ahead of a May 10 court decision on their appeal.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams called their 2015 conviction “one of the first of many bogus cases brought against the opposition after the party nearly won the disputed 2013 elections” and suggested that incarcerating them was part of a bid by Hun Sen and the CPP to “stave off defeat at the ballot-box.”
However, after deliberating for two minutes, Judge Plang Samnang said Cambodia’s Court of Appeal in the capital Phnom Penh “decided to uphold the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s verdict” and ordered the continued detention of the 11 people,” without providing a reason for the ruling.
Meanwhile, the National Election Commission (NEC)—Cambodia’s top electoral body—on Tuesday announced the results of a drawing to determine the ballot position of each of the country’s 20 political parties registered for the July 29 election.
In a statement, NEC chairperson Sik Bun Hok called the results “really significant,” as they “will provide favorable conditions for political parties related to electoral campaign and [help] voters easily recognize the political party they prefer.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen took to his Facebook account after the announcement to congratulate his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on securing number 20 on the ballot, which he said “is easy to remember for our general citizens nationwide.”
Sam Inn, the secretary general for the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP), wrote on Facebook that his party’s securing the seventh position on the ballot—the position held by the CNRP in the country’s 2013 election—signaled a “rebirth of the spirit of number seven,” suggesting that the GDP was the natural replacement for the dissolved opposition party and could replicate its success in this year’s ballot.
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy—who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid convictions widely seen as politically motivated—dismissed Sam Inn’s comments, saying the GDP’s position was “purely a coincidence,” and warned voters that his party was nothing like the CNRP, which was banned by the Supreme Court in November over allegations it was involved in a plot to overthrow the government.
“In Cambodia, under Hun Sen, everything is fake, including democracy, development, rule of law, and the election,” he said.
“The party standing on number 7 is a fake party, and we ask our citizens not to pay any attention to it … Please only pay attention to the CNRP, which calls upon you all not to participate in such a fake and theatrical election, that is seen as a devolution of democracy in Cambodia.”
Analysts told RFA’s Khmer Service that regardless of the position of each party on the ballot, the CPP is likely to obliterate the competition because it has no true challenger, following the dissolution of the CNRP.
“The CPP will surely receive overwhelming support because the other 19 parties cannot compare to it,” said election expert Yoeung Sotheara.
“In terms of their weight, they are much lighter and so cannot be appropriate challengers for the ruling party. Nevertheless, it is their rights to participate.”
Youth voter analyst Hang Vitou told RFA that Cambodians “clearly understand that the other parties are puppet parties” that are only taking part to create “a scenario for the ruling party, in order for it to cling to power.”
But he said that even if fewer voters support the ruling party than did in the country’s previous election, “the CPP could still win the election compared to the other parties.”
“The other parties are taking part in the election, but compared to the CPP, they don’t enjoy much support … due to their ability, potential and officials,” he said.
Hang Vitou said he expects the voter turnout to be significantly lower than the previous election due to absence of the CNRP, adding that Hun Sen had already “ensured his victory” after dissolution of the main opposition party.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.