Three Cambodian political opposition figures arrested last week on charges of treason after they posted information on the COVID-19 outbreak in the country have been unfairly detained and may suffer damaged health in custody, a lawyer for the group said.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, attorney Sam Sokong said that two of the men, Keo Thai and Yim Sareth, are at particular risk of poor health, as they have high blood pressure and must take medication every day.
“I feel pity for them because they are being held unfairly,” Sam Sokong said, adding that the three men are not guilty of the crimes for which they have been charged.
“I and their other lawyers are planning to submit a letter with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, asking for their release on bail,” he said.
Keo Thai, chief of a local branch of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Kampong Chhnang province, and his colleague Thai Sokunthea were arrested in the province during the last week of March, with Yim Sareth—first deputy commune chief in Svay Rieng province’s Romeas Hek district—taken into custody in Phnom Penh on March 27.
All three have now been charged with treason, causing social instability, and inciting the military to refuse to obey the orders of their commanders in connection with a case connected with a continuing government crackdown on the CNRP, and are being held in a single cell in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar Prison.
The Nov. 16, 2017 ban on the CNRP, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, Keo Thai’s daughter Keo Chan Rachana said that her father had stopped working for the CNRP after it was dissolved and had recently worked teaching English at a public school and at home.
“I feel so hurt, because my father did nothing wrong, and they came to arrest him without showing a warrant,” she said.
Also speaking to RFA, Yim Sareth’s wife Ouk Chanthy said that following her husband’s arrest she has been unable to return to her work at a factory because of concern over his diet and health in prison, though she was recently allowed to send him some medicine and a little money.
“But I work each day to eat each day,” she said, adding, “Our family’s condition is very difficult now, because we depend on him for our support, and he is now in prison.”
Passports, IDs still held
A Cambodian appeals court on Tuesday meanwhile upheld a Jan. 28 decision by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to reject a request by two former RFA reporters that their passports and other identifying documents be returned to them while an investigation continues into charges against them of espionage.
Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin—who had worked as an editor, reporter, and news anchor, and as a photographer and videographer for RFA’s Khmer Service, respectively—were taken into custody in November 2017.
They were charged with “illegally collecting information for a foreign source” after RFA closed its bureau in the capital in September that year. Their arrest came after a warning from Cambodia’s Ministries of Information and Interior that any journalists still working for RFA after its office closed would be treated as spies.
Speaking to RFA, attorney Sam Chamroeun said he regretted the appeals court decision, saying that the seized documents are irrelevant to prosecutors’ continuing efforts to build a case against the pair.
“It is very disappointing that the court will not give back those passports and ID cards, because we have legal grounds to apply for them to be returned,” he said.
Yeang Sothearin also voiced disappointment at the appeals court decision, calling it “inhumane,” and saying that the withholding of his documents had prevented him from visiting his parents and attending a funeral.
“My passport and ID card are only credentials and cannot help them in their investigation,” he said, adding it is impossible now to know how much longer the documents will be kept.
Emergency law proposed
The developments came as Cambodia’s Council of Ministers reviewed a draft of legislation calling for a state of emergency to contain the further spread of coronavirus in the country, which has now confirmed 109 cases of infection.
Speaking to RFA, Soeung Senkarona—spokesman for the Cambodia-based rights group Adhoc—urged the government to release details of the draft law, which will be sent to the National Assembly for approval in early April.
He said the government should also accept recommendations from the public to prevent the emergency law from being used to restrict human rights and freedom of expression, already under pressure during Hun Sen’s three-year-old crackdown.
“There should be a public debate before this draft law is submitted to the National Assembly so that we can avoid enacting a bad law that leads to human rights abuses and causes social problems,” he said.
Attempts to reach government spokesman Phay Siphan on Tuesday for comment were unsuccessful.
In a statement, Human Rights Watch meanwhile called on Cambodian authorities to stop using what it called “inflammatory rhetoric” against minority groups and foreigners after the Health Ministry on March 17 pointed to cases of infection among Khmer Muslims returning from a religious ceremony in Malaysia.
“The Cambodian government should act to ensure there is no discrimination against vulnerable groups and foreigners in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said on Tuesday.
“Government leaders should formally apologize to Cambodia’s Muslim communities for the Health Ministry’s discriminatory statement and meet with community leaders to show their support,” Robertson said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Aun Pheap and Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.