A court in Cambodia has issued a new warrant for the arrest of acting president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy for “insulting the King,” after he gave an interview in which he called King Norodom Sihamoni a “puppet” of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor Keo Sothea on Sept. 13 brought charges against Sam Rainsy and ordered his detention a day after he gave an interview to RFA’s Khmer Service, in which he suggested that Sihamoni “is afraid of Hun Sen and wants to maintain his throne, so there is nothing we can expect from a king who is the puppet of Hun Sen.”
On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigative Judge Koy Sao cited the charges in issuing a second warrant for the arrest of Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a number of convictions he says are politically motivated, but has vowed to return to help lead a restoration of democracy in Cambodia in November.
“Order to Arrest Sam Rainsy,” the warrant reads, adding that the order is necessary because the acting CNRP chief no longer lives in Cambodia and “needs to be brought to trial.”
“This order allows public authorities to investigate and apprehend the suspect for questioning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.”
The warrant also orders court officials to “prepare a jail cell” for Sam Rainsy, who the CNRP announced last month will return to Cambodia from exile, along with several other high-ranking party officials, on Nov. 9 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France, despite threats by Hun Sen to imprison them.
The new order to take Sam Rainsy into custody comes after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in March made public its decision to issue arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy and seven other top CNRP officials living abroad on charges of “treason and incitement to commit felonies.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple Hun Sen’s regime, two months after police arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha and accused him of planning a coup. The opposition leader faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
The moves against the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodia’s government has sought to downplay the impending return of Sam Rainsy and threatened to arrest him and the two million migrant workers from Cambodia toiling in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and other countries that he has vowed will accompany him home.
Speaking to government-affiliated newspaper Fresh News on Tuesday, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said that the second warrant was issued because Sam Rainsy “didn’t learn his lesson” from the first one.
Analyst Em Sovannara told RFA that the warrants are part of a bid to “intimidate” Sam Rainsy into putting off a return to Cambodia, but suggested that the opposition leader “needs to gather supporters” before he attempts to do so.
“Even if there weren’t any charges against him, Sam Rainsy wouldn’t return,” he said.
“He needs to gather supporters first, because if he is not safe, he won’t come back.”
The new warrant to detain Sam Rainy came as the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issued a statement urging Cambodia to “end its assault on opposition members and activists, drop all politically motivated charges against them and immediately release all those in custody,” following a spike in arrests since Friday last week.
Authorities arrested six CNRP activists over the weekend, bringing to 27 the total number of CNRP activists taken into custody since the beginning of 2019, according to RFA’s count, on charges APHR called “wide-ranging and dubious.”
“The timing of these most recent arrests is preposterous,” said Charles Santiago, Malaysian Member of Parliament and APHR Chair.
“They are a clear attempt to threaten and silence opposition members and any activists showing support for the return of CNRP leaders. Will Hun Sen only stop spreading fear once all his critics are behind bars?”
APHR noted that Hun Sen has been counteracting efforts by Sam Rainsy and other CNRP leaders to gather the support of the international community by seeking the cooperation of neighboring countries to ensure that their return will be prevented, and that Laos has reportedly agreed to take “strict measures” against any opposition officials who attempt to enter Cambodia through its territory.
“Neighbouring countries have a duty to support all efforts towards political dialogue in Cambodia and should not kneel to the demands of an increasingly dangerous autocrat,” said Kasit Piromya, APHR Board Member, and former Thailand Member of Parliament.
“Our solidarity is and should always be with the people of Cambodia and their fundamental freedoms and human rights, not with any political dynasties—be they opposition or ruling parties.”
Piromya suggested that Hun Sen still has time to “reverse course.”
“The Cambodian people will have their say and it’s in everyone’s interests, including those in the ruling CPP, that open dialogue and genuine political discourse are permitted,” he said.
Responding to the APHR statement on Tuesday, Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that the activists who were arrested recently had “crossed a red line.”
“The government has the duty to protect national security and public order,” he said.
“Those people have crossed a red line after they organized forces [against the government] that will lead the country into a security crisis. We will take action against them. The government’s actions aren’t an abuse of human rights, but a response to public demand.”
Am Sam Ath, of local rights group Licadho, recently told RFA that authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since Sam Rainsy announced his plans to return to Cambodia and that, in addition to the 27 arrested since the beginning of the year, at least 156 CNRP activists have faced interrogation over the same period.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.