U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet hit out on Monday at Cambodian authorities’ harassment of members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, pointing to the questioning by police of over 100 party activists, and detention of over 20, since the beginning of the year.
Speaking at the 42nd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, Bachelet voiced concern at the “continued pressure on members and supporters of the main opposition party, which was dissolved at the end of 2017.”
“Since the start of this year, police or the courts have questioned over 130 people, and at least 22 opposition members or supporters are currently in detention, on a range of criminal charges or convictions either directly or indirectly related to their political opinion,” Bachelet said.
“The right to development needs to rest on participation by everyone in decision-making – including people who offer critical views; and I encourage the Government to take steps to ensure genuine dialogue and respect for fundamental freedoms.”
In September 2017, Cambodian authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha, and Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its elected officials from politics two months later for the party’s alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election, making Cambodia effectively a one-party state.
Outside of ruling party circles, the election was widely considered a sham.
'A normal case'
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, a Cambodian government spokesman dismissed Bachelet’s criticisms of his country’s rights record, saying it is "a normal case” for the U.N. human rights commissioner to make statements taking different views into account
“[Bachelet] must express the concerns raised by some civil society organizations, who always raise criticisms against the government because of political agendas,” Ministry of Justice spokesperson and vice president of Cambodia’s National Committee for Human Rights Chin Malin said.
“Yet she has also acknowledged the efforts and progress made by the government during recent meetings with our foreign minister and the prime minister,” Chin Malin said, adding that Cambodia’s government will continue to cooperate with the U.N. human rights commissioner and other U.N. agencies in order to explain its positions.
Speaking to RFA, CNRP activists and family members meanwhile continued to report harassment by authorities this week, with one party member living in southeastern Cambodia’s Prey Veng province saying he is watched each day by police.
“In our country, we are not secure,” Thorn Sopheap, a resident of Prey Sla village in the Prey Phnov commune, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday. “Authorities can arrest anyone they like without showing them a warrant.”
“I am concerned for my safety, but I will not stand for injustice in our society,” he said.
Local police chief Sum Seiha denied any knowledge of the case, saying he has served in his post for only a month, but villagers said they have been approached by police seeking information on the CNRP party member, who is active in volunteer work in the area.
Visitors turned away
Meanwhile, friends of detained CNRP member Kong Raiya were turned away last week from Prey Sar Prison in the capital Phnom Penh by officials who said the youth activist was unwilling to meet with them.
Doctors from the Cambodia-based rights group Licadho were likewise turned away last week after officials told them that Kong Raiya, who was arrested on July 9 after wearing a T-shirt bearing a portrait of murdered political commentator Kem Ley, had said he did not wish to be examined.
Speaking to RFA, Kong Raiya’s wife Sok Sreynich said that prison authorities had lied in saying Kong Raiya had refused the visits.
“I don’t know why they used my husband’s name to falsely claim that he is not willing to meet with anyone,” So Sreynich said. “He didn’t know anything about this.”
“My husband and I, as his wife, are requesting the prison officials to clarify this matter,” she said. “If they don’t want anyone besides family members to visit my husband, they should at least not be falsely using his name.”
Attempts by RFA to reach the Interior Ministry’s General Directorate of Prisons for comment were unsuccessful, with spokesperson Nuth Savana refusing to accept the call.
Sam Sokkong, defense attorney for Kong Raiya, said he was unaware that prison officials had falsely used his client’s name, but said this would have violated Kong Raiya’s rights.
“The rights he can enjoy include the right to receive visits from family members, relatives, or others who want to pay him a visit inside the prison, while the prison determines the arrangements for such visits,” he said.
Called for questioning
Since the start of 2019, authorities have summoned over 147 CNRP members and supporters around the country for questioning, international human rights monitoring group Human Rights Watch noted in a statement in August, calling on concerned governments to demand “the immediate and unconditional release of former opposition members and activists arbitrarily detained.”
Cambodian courts have frequently come under fire for acting at the apparent direction of Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, especially in politically sensitive cases.
Acting CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who has shepherded the party in exile, has meanwhile vowed to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9 with other high-ranking party officials to oust Hun Sen and restore democracy to Cambodia, despite threats by Hun Sen to imprison him.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo and Neang Ieng. Written in English by Richard Finney.