Authorities have charged two more members of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) with “attempting to stage a coup” after they expressed support for party chief Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia from self-imposed in November.
Srean Sreang, a CNRP activist in Kampong Cham province, and Mao Vibol, the head of the CNRP in Svay Rieng province who fled to Thailand following the party’s dissolution, were charged with planning to overthrow the government under Article 453 of Cambodia’s Penal Code for organizing a welcome for Sam Rainsy, prosecutors from their home provinces said in a statement on Thursday.
The two men were also charged with “incitement to commit offenses,” prosecutors said, adding that they “might be pardoned” if they come forward and “confess their crimes in a timely manner.”
The statement came on the same day that local media reported the issuance of an arrest warrant on Sept. 16 for Sao Usaphea, a CNRP activist in the seat of Preah Sihanouk province.
According to the reports, Sao Usaphea faces the same charges as Srean Sreang and Mao Vibol and had also expressed support for Sam Rainsy’s return. She is currently in hiding.
Seven other CNRP activists from Kampong Cham are also in hiding as of Friday after they received summonses to appear before the provincial court regarding their appeal for the government to restore human rights and democracy.
On Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged eight senior officials from the CNRP, including acting president Sam Rainsy, as well as his wife, Tioulong Saumura, with “attempting to stage a coup” in connection with the party chief’s plan to return to the country, saying they faced a punishment of between five and 20 years in prison.
The court also charged the nine with “intention to commit armed rebellion” as part of Sam Rainsy’s stated intention to lead a “restoration of democracy” through peaceful protests in Cambodia when he returns on Nov. 9, to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the country’s independence from France.
Also among those named in the charges were CNRP deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang, and former lawmakers Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, Men Sothavarin, Long Ry, and Tok Vanchan.
According to media reports, posters bearing photos of the same senior CNRP officials have been hung at crossings between the Thai-Malaysian border and the Thai-Cambodia frontier, with instructions to arrest them on sight, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last week that it had issued arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy to all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile since late 2015 to avoid what he says are politically motivated convictions and arrest warrants, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to arrest him as soon as he sets foot inside Cambodia.
In his absence, authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha on charges of treason in September 2017 and the Supreme Court banned the opposition party two months later for its role in the alleged plot to topple the government.
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. Hun Sen has been in power since 1985.
Authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since the party announced Sam Rainsy’s plan in August, calling on supporters and members of Cambodia’s armed forces to join him.
Police have made multiple arrests in recent weeks, bringing to at least 29 the number of CNRP activists detained since the beginning of the year and at least 158 the number subjected to interrogation over the same period, and prompting calls from Western governments and rights groups for an end to the mistreatment.
In response to the charges brought against the senior CNRP officials and reports that posters calling for their arrest have been hung at border crossings, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issued a statement urging Prime Minister Hun Sen to allow them to return to Cambodia, calling the accusations against them “ludicrous and baseless.”
“Hun Sen is doing everything possible to try and stop Sam Rainsy and other exiled CNRP members from returning in November—no matter the damage it does to the country,” said Charles Santiago, Malaysian MP and APHR Board Chair.
“Cambodia’s state institutions have been torn to shreds and left in tatters by the increasingly volatile actions of an authoritarian leader on the ropes.”
Santiago called Cambodia’s courts “co-opted” and demanded that they overturn the decisions to ban the CNRP and arrest its members, which he said were “clearly politically motivated.”
The CNRP leaders, including APHR board member Mu Sochua, have every right to return to their country and live freely, he added.
“ASEAN member states and the international community must let Hun Sen know in no uncertain terms that we are watching very closely,” Santiago said, urging the government to “immediately drop all charges against opposition members, reinstate their civil and political rights and stop harassing opposition politicians.”
“Hun Sen should not stand in the way of the peaceful return of opposition members to the country and allow for genuine democracy, or Cambodia's reputation will only continue to plummet in the eyes of the international community.”
Also on Friday, the government-controlled Cambodian Human Rights Committee issued a statement saying it had reviewed an annual report by Rhona Smith, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia, which was presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council on Wednesday, and regretted that the CNRP, NGOs, and the media had worked to “exaggerate” her concerns as part of a “malicious attack” on Hun Sen’s regime.
Speaking to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva as part of her presentation on Wednesday, Smith expressed concerns over the state of civil and political rights in Cambodia, including the ban on the CNRP, urging the government to reverse course and ensure a fully inclusive society based on democratic principles and human rights.
She called on Hun Sen to “reset the approach to rights and freedoms in Cambodia and ensure that all rights and freedoms voluntarily accepted by the government are enjoyed by everyone in the country” and release CNRP President Kem Sokha, who was arrested two months prior to the 2017 ban on his party, from de facto house arrest, where he has been held awaiting trial on charges of treason.
On Friday, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee said it welcomed Smith’s recommendations, except for those “which are, in nature, political and inapplicable because they are contrary to [Cambodian law],” including the dissolution of the opposition and legal action “against a small number of leaders and activists of the former CNRP as they have committed offences.”
The committee demanded that all U.N. institutions and mechanisms “avoid interfering in the internal affairs of sovereign states and be a good example to the member states.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.