Riot police walk toward their positions to block supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party marching toward an appeals court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. 

© 2018 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
(New York) – Cambodian authorities should immediately end the harassment of former opposition party members and their supporters, Human Rights Watch said today. European Union officials arriving in Cambodia on June 3, 2019 to review the Cambodian government’s rights record in connection with the Everything but Arms (EBA) trade privileges should raise serious concerns about the renewed crackdown with government officials.

During 2019, Cambodian authorities have issued at least 147 arbitrary court and police summonses against members or supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Summons seen by Human Rights Watch lacked legal specifics, containing only vague references to allegations that the person summoned may have violated the Supreme Court ruling that dissolved the CNRP in November 2017.

“It’s been more than a year since a politicized Supreme Court decision effectively turned Cambodia into a one-party state, but the government is still harassing former opposition party members through police interrogations and court summonses,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The EU and other donors to Cambodia should demand that the Hun Sen government immediately release all arbitrarily detained opposition members and fully restore the CNRP as a political party.”

To date, 36 summonses were issued in Battambang province, 36 in Kandal, 35 in Kampong Thom, 14 in Phnom Penh, 8 in Banteay Meanchey, 6 in Kampong Speu, 6 in Kampot, 4 in Kampong Chhnang, and 2 in Pursat.

On the evening of May 28, a group of mixed commune, district, and provincial police officers arrested a former CNRP activist, Chan Sophal, in Chay Chouk village, Veal Veng district, in Pursat province. The same evening, police officers arrested Touch Sam Ath, a former CNRP district party deputy chief in Steung Smey village, Veal Veng district, Pursat province. After his arrest, the officers sent him to the Bromuy commune health center due to health issues.

Both men are being held at Pursat provincial prison. Authorities allege that the two men were involved in “encroaching on state forest land” and illegal logging. The human rights organization Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) reported that these arrests were an apparent attempt to intimidate opposition activists.

In March, the Kampong Speu provincial court charged six former CNRP members in Kampong Speu province with incitement under article 495 of Cambodia’s penal code after they had made public statements in December and January in support of plans announced by the acting CNRP president, Sam Rainsy, to return to Cambodia. Officials summoned them to court for questioning. On March 7, all six fled to Thailand, fearing arrest.

On January 16, police arrested Kong Meas, a former CNRP member in Svay Rieng province, after seeing his post on Facebook related to the EU’s decision to withdraw Cambodia’s preferential tariff for Cambodian rice. Officials charged him with public insult and incitement to commit a felony under articles 307 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code, a charge used increasingly to silence critics.

On March 12, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued arrest warrants for eight leading members of the CNRP in exile – Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua, Ou Chanrith, Eng Chhai Eang, Men Sothavarin, Long Ry, Tob Van Chan, and Ho Vann. The charges against them are conspiring to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony under articles 443 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code. All eight leaders left Cambodia ahead of the July 2018 election after a widespread crackdown on the political opposition and nongovernmental groups.

In mid-March, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that since the forced dissolution of the CNRP, “at least 75 party parliamentarians and activists” had fled Cambodia to avoid arrest.

On April 18, Tith Rorn, a CNRP activist and the son of Eam Tith, a former CNRP commune council member in Kampong Cham province, died in police custody with visible bruises on his body that suggest he was beaten. His arrest on April 15 related to a 13-year-old assault charge, even though the statute of limitations for the offense had already expired. Cambodian authorities claim Tith Rorn fell in the bathroom of his jail cell but have not conducted an independent or impartial investigation. Activists and his family are dismissing dubious edited video footage released by The Phnom Penh Post, and are demanding a prompt, thorough, and independent investigation into his death.

Freedom of expression online in Cambodia has been significantly diminished based on an array of repressive laws and decrees that arbitrarily allow the Cambodian government to close online space and silence its critics. There has been a spike in the number of cases against critics of the government, opposition figures, and other independent voices in Cambodia, with prosecutions based on posting and sharing political content on social media.

In November 2017, the government-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 party members from political activity for five years. The court action came in advance of national elections in which the opposition CNRP was expected to challenge the ruling party’s longtime rule. On July 29, 2018, elections were held without a major opposition party, and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all the seats in the National Assembly, effectively making Cambodia a one-party state.

“How many more dissidents need to be jailed or forced into exile before the international community acts to defend human rights and democracy in Cambodia?” Adams said. “EU officials reviewing Cambodia’s EBA trade status need to take this constricting of democratic space into account as they consider their next steps.”