UPDATED at 10:45 A.M. EDT on 2019-05-09
Several former members of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were questioned by a court in Battambang province Wednesday over allegedly violating a Supreme Court order that dissolved the party, prompting condemnation from rights groups.
Battambang Provincial Court prosecutor Ky Punara recently summoned 26 formerly elected CNRP commune chiefs and council members to the court over the next two weeks to answer questions about whether they engaged in politics on behalf of the party after it was banned by the Supreme Court in November 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government.
Cambodia drew condemnation from Western trade partners and aid donors after the Supreme Court decision, which paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to steamroll a general election in July last year widely seen as unfree and unfair.
Five of the 26 appeared at the court Wednesday amid a heavy presence of both uniformed and plainclothes police officers who sealed off the surrounding streets.
Former CNRP elected chief of Battambang’s Wat Ko commune Tan Samorn—one of the five questioned—told RFA’s Khmer Service after appearing in court that he believes the summons was a tactic meant to intimidate him and other former opposition members.
“This morning I was left wondering why they summoned me to the court,” he said.
“They told me that it was because we gathered to eat noodles and we might have been planning to do something in violation of their policy,” he added, referring to a night in December 2018 that he and other former CNRP officials gathered for dinner at the home of Sin Chanpov Rozeth, the former CNRP commune chief of Battambang’s O’Char commune.
Tan Samorn expressed frustration that he had been summoned for questioning about something he described as a “personal matter,” and said he was allowed to return home after around half an hour of interrogation by two court officials.
He further suggested that the presence of security forces outside of the court on Wednesday was part of a bid by officials to block CNRP supporters from approaching the building during the hearing.
Yen Mengly, Battambang coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that the deployment of police and roadblocks signaled authorities’ fear of a gathering at the courthouse and was in violation of the right to public assembly.
He also questioned why the five former CNRP officials had been summoned to court for questioning over a meal of noodles.
“This shows that the authorities are seriously concerned,” he said.
“In a democratic society, people are free to do this kind of thing. They can’t try to turn a simple gathering into a ‘movement to topple the government.’”
Provincial Deputy Police Commissioner Mean Lay was unavailable for comment about the police presence outside the court on Wednesday, but Battambang city governor Pheng Sithy told RFA the deployment was due to “road construction” and had nothing to do with the hearing.
Yen Mengly’s concerns were echoed by Sor Chandeth, a former senator for the now-defunct Sam Rainsy Party, which merged with the Human Rights Party (HRP) to form the CNRP ahead of Cambodia’s 2013 ballot.
“The harassment and court summons of CNRP activists and [former] officials in Battambang is not that different from what happened during the Khmer Rouge,” he said, referring to the harsh Communist regime under whose 1975-79 rule an estimated 3 million people are believed to have died.
“The CNRP has been dissolved and CNRP activists were just gathering to eat noodles with friends—they were only summoned by the court in order to intimidate and threaten them,” he added.
“Why can’t they meet friends as private citizens? There is no legal provision to ban them from talking … So this isn’t about Cambodian law—it’s about law as dictated by the mouth of Hun Sen.”
Sin Chanpov Rozeth and five other former CNRP officials are scheduled to appear at the Battambang Provincial Court for questioning on Thursday.
Rights group statement
Wednesday’s hearing came a day after New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement demanding that authorities immediately cease harassing former CNRP members in Cambodia’s courts.
“The Cambodian government continues to harass numerous opposition officials in the courts and to threaten them with prison time long after the main opposition party was unjustifiably disbanded,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
“The government should immediately end the political harassment campaign against the CNRP and drop this latest batch of absurd court cases.”
In addition to the court order summoning the 26 formerly elected CNRP commune chiefs and council members for questioning, HRW noted that on May 2 a court in the capital Phnom Penh sentenced Sam Rainsy, acting head of the exiled CNRP, to eight years in prison in absentia for “insulting the monarchy, inciting military personnel to disobedience, and the demoralization of the army.”
Sam Rainsy, who had vowed to return to Cambodia this year to lead the CNRP’s supporters, fled the country in November 2015 to avoid a string of other convictions widely seen as politically motivated.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has also issued arrest warrants for eight leading members of the CNRP in exile, including Sam Rainsy, on charges of conspiring to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony.
HRW also noted that CNRP leader Kem Sokha “has been arbitrarily deprived of his liberty for over 18 months” and remains under de facto house arrest while under investigation for “treason,” though “authorities have provided no evidence that he has committed any recognizable offense.”
“Hun Sen’s persecution of the opposition shows he is once again testing how far he can take his crackdown on independent and critical voices in Cambodia,” Adams said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan on Wednesday dismissed HRW’s statement, saying the Battambang Provincial Court’s summons had “nothing to do with politics.”
“The court’s actions were based on factual and legal aspects, and we urge those who doubt that to present more evidence,” he said.
“The statement by Brad Adams only confuses people because it does nothing to reduce the burden of suspicion on the suspects.”
But Am Sam Ath, of local rights group Licadho, called HRW’s statement “a true reflection of the reality in Cambodia” with “no hidden political agenda.”
He noted that the European Union in February launched a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, prompted by the Supreme Court ruling to ban the CNRP and a wider government crackdown on NGOs and the independent media surrounding last year’s election.
“The EU Parliament is closely watching whether Cambodia works to restore democracy and the respect of human rights,” he said.
“The summons by the Battambang court appears to be another violation of human rights and democracy in Cambodia, and I think the government should seriously consider the interests of the people and the nation, rather than its own political goals.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Vanrith Chrea. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.