A court in Cambodia has summoned former president of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy as a suspect in a lèse-majesté case, after he called a letter from the country’s king endorsing upcoming elections “legally worthless.”
On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok issued a summons ordering Sam Rainsy to testify at the Prosecution Office on the morning of July 12 for “insulting” King Norodom Sihamoni in statements posted to his Facebook page beginning in June.
The summons directs Sam Rainsy—who is currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid conviction in several cases widely seen as politically motivated—to appear at the office “in a timely manner” and to “bring any relevant documentation” connected to the accusations against him.
In a letter dated May 18 and released to public in early June, King Sihamoni said that Cambodia’s July 29 general election is in keeping with the principles of pluralism, despite expectations it will be neither free nor fair following the Supreme Court’s dissolution of the CNRP in November over its alleged involvement in a plot to topple the government.
The letter also called on voters to ignore “warnings and threats” from any individual or political party that might prevent them from casting their ballot next month, after several leaders of the CNRP called for a boycott in protest of their party’s ban from participation in the election.
Shortly after the letter went public, Sam Rainsy responded with a Facebook post, calling the missive “a forgery or written under duress, and thus legally worthless.”
On May 23, the former CNRP president had written an open letter to King Sihamoni, urging him to refrain from endorsing the election and bending to the will of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in calling on the public to vote, given the country’s political situation. In more recent posts, he suggested the king’s letter had been backdated to avoid the “shame” of writing it after his request.
Sam Rainsy dismissed the summons from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in a Facebook post on Wednesday and reiterated his belief that the king’s endorsement “has no legal value.”
“We must not believe these courtesans in the Royal Palace who have sold out [to the CPP] and are telling us lies,” he wrote.
“I maintain that our present king is being held hostage by Hun Sen, who is forcing him to support an autocratic and traitorous regime.”
Political analyst Hang Vitou told RFA’s Khmer Service that Tuesday’s summons would do little to address concerns that Cambodia’s judiciary is directed by the ruling party, and that Sam Rainsy would never honor the summons in any case—much like he hadn’t for previous charges leveled against him.
“Sam Rainsy views the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as a ‘kangaroo court’ that has been indoctrinated and influenced by the ruling party,” he said.
“Such summonses serves no purpose, other than to heap legal pressure on Sam Rainsy and threaten him with additional jail time.”
Sam Rainsy has lost 10 lawsuits filed against him through Cambodia’s courts and, with Tuesday’s summons, becomes the fourth person in the country to face charges under the controversial lèse-majesté law.
The law, which was unanimously adopted by the CPP-dominated National Assembly in mid-February, allows prosecutors to bring a criminal lawsuit on behalf of the monarchy against anyone deemed to have insulted the royal family—a charge that carries a punishment of between one and five years in prison and a fine of between U.S. $500 and $2,500.
The monarchy has come under considerable pressure from the CPP during Hun Sen’s rule, and the prime minister once threatened to change the country’s form of government to a republic if the king refused to sign a supplemental treaty administering Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
The fresh charges against Sam Rainsy came amid a slew of new criticism by rights groups and governments aimed at Hun Sen’s rule in the lead up to next month’s elections.
At the 38th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, New Zealand’s charge d’affaires Jarrod Clyne delivered a statement relaying his country’s concerns over a deteriorating rights situation in Cambodia and that “we do not consider the pre-election environment to be conducive to holding free, fair and genuine national elections.”
Clyne highlighted a months-long crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs and independent media, which is widely seen as part of a bid to ensure that the CPP stays in power following the vote, and urged the High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein to monitor the situation “before, during and after the elections” to determine whether action should be taken at the council’s next session.
New York-based Human Rights Watch welcomed the statement from New Zealand, encouraging the High Commissioner to “keep the Human Rights Council informed through intersessional briefings” and urging the council to “put in place monitoring and reporting of the human rights situation” in Cambodia during the ballots.
Cambodia's ambassador to the U.N. Office at Geneva, Ney Sam Ol, responded to Clyne's statement by suggesting that New Zealand has a “hidden agenda to discredit the outstanding achievements of [Cambodia's] Government” and has “no hesitation to undermine the Council using it as a political tool to meddle in Cambodia's July 29 Election.”
Also on Tuesday, Mark Butler, a member of Australia's parliament for Port Adelaide in South Australia, told legislators that Hun Sen and the CPP had acted to “shut down democracy” ahead of the vote and suggested that the prime minister had installed operatives in Australia’s Cambodian community to dissuade criticism of the ballot, specifically through a group called the Cambodia Cultural Association.
“It appears clear to me through community reports that the Cambodia Cultural Association is little more than a front for Hun Sen," he said, adding that the group “seems largely focused on the intimidation of the local Cambodian community” in Australia.
He said members of the association had threatened local Cambodian community with reprisals if they return to Cambodia to visit their families, after many gathered in Sydney in March to protest Hun Sen’s human rights record as the Cambodian leader prepared for a special summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The Cambodia Cultural Association could not immediately be reached for comment in response to the allegations, but it was among seven groups that had issued a joint statement welcoming Hun Sen’s visit to Australia in March.
Monitor drops out
Meanwhile, the local office of Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) announced Wednesday that it would not monitor Cambodia’s ballot, saying “the political environment and conditions during the months leading up to the 29 July election make it impossible for TI Cambodia to mobilise enough resources to monitor the polls and contribute to the electoral process in a meaningful way.”
TI Cambodia’s executive director Preap Kol told RFA that his organization “lacked sufficient basis to provide recommendations or issue any statement regarding the election” because it did not have enough information about the integrity of the vote.
Last month, the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), a respected independent vote monitor, said it will not sign up observers for July’s elections in the face of government restrictions on NGO activities.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.