(New York) – Cambodian authorities should rescind the politically motivated arrest warrant for opposition leader Sam Rainsy and quash the wrongful convictions on which it is based, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia’s donors should publicly call for the case to be dropped and for Prime Minister Hun Sen to end his repeated use of the criminal law against political opponents.
In the last several days, Sen has repeatedly denounced Rainsy, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and threatened to have him prosecuted. The arrest warrant, issued on November 13, 2015, results from a request by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong, a leading member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Rainsy is currently in South Korea.
“In a week when Burma’s military accepted defeat at the polls, Hun Sen has responded to opposition party statements about winning the next election by trying to imprison the opposition leader,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Such political use of the criminal law against critics has happened over and over again. It’s like watching a video on an endless loop.”
The arrest warrant was issued by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for politically motivated convictions in 2011 for “public defamation” and “incitement of discrimination.” The convictions relate to comments made by Rainsy in May 2008, alleging that Namhong was implicated in crimes at a Khmer Rouge prison camp in the late 1970s. Namhong has denied the claims, saying he was a prisoner and victim of the Khmer Rouge.
The convictions against Rainsy were upheld by Cambodia’s Appeals Court in March 2013, but the sentence against Rainsy was never enforced. Rainsy left the country in 2009, going into exile to avoid imprisonment for convictions on these and other trumped-up charges. King Norodom Sihamoni agreed on July 11, 2013 to grant Rainsy a royal pardon for various other cases, a move that Namhong publicly welcomed and that allowed Rainsy to return to the country. However, the pardon did not mention the convictions in the Namhong case.
The 2011 conviction came after the highest court in France in April 2011 ruled in favor of Rainsy on a defamation claim by Namhong. In a landmark ruling, the court declared that, as Rainsy’s allegations were made neither knowing they were untrue nor with malice, they did “not go beyond what freedom of expression allows when it comes to critiquing the conduct of a politician,” and are protected by public interest in “a general topic about the recent history of Cambodia and the conduct of an important figure during the tragic events that occurred there between 1975 and 1979.”
“After three decades of using the courts as a political cudgel against opponents, one might expect Hun Sen to be more sophisticated in his misuse of the criminal law,” Adams said. “He will fool no one by dredging up this case now.”
Sen’s ruling CPP claimed victory over the CNRP in national elections in 2013, which were marred by serious fraud and irregularities, though the CNRP did substantially increase its number of seats in parliament. Since the election, Cambodia has been beset by recurring rounds of political crises, punctuated by arbitrary arrests and jailings of CNRP members of the National Assembly and party activists.
In response to public statements by CNRP leaders that they would win the next elections in 2018, Sen and other CPP leaders, including those in the armed forces, have made a series of public threats against the opposition. This culminated in a campaign to remove Kem Sokha, CNRP deputy leader and vice president of the National Assembly, from his post. In October 2015, elements in CPP-organized mobs carried out a brutal assault on two CNRP parliamentarians. The CPP then voted to strip Sokha of his leadership post in the National Assembly.
“The actions against Sam Rainsy again expose the absurdity of Cambodia’s legal system, which seems to serve as little more than Hun Sen’s tool to maintain power,” Adams said. “His persecution of those peacefully challenging his authoritarian rule appears boundless. Donors should step in now to say there are bounds.”