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Police officers paint on barricades at a park near the residence of Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen in preparation for Saturday's Independence Day event in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Tuesday, November 5, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should permit exiled opposition leaders to return to Cambodia and freely resume political activities, Human Rights Watch said today. As part of the crackdown on the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Prime Minister Hun Sen has threatened to arrest Sam Rainsy and other party leaders who plan to return on November 9, 2019, Cambodian Independence Day.

“After banning the opposition and staging sham trials to convict Sam Rainsy, now Prime Minister Hun Sen is blocking Rainsy’s return to the country,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “This is the culmination of three months of aggressive harassment, arrests, and attacks on the CNRP and its members, which is really about preventing the restoration of multi-party democracy in Cambodia.”

Hun Sen has repeatedly called on Rainsy to return to Cambodia to be imprisoned, but now says he and other party leaders cannot return, Human Rights Watch said. On September 17, Hun Sen declared that the government had sent other ASEAN countries arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy in an effort to prevent Rainsy from transiting them to reach Cambodia. On November 1, Radio Free Asia reported that the Cambodian Civil Aviation Authority had issued a directive instructing 47 commercial airlines not to allow Rainsy to board their aircraft. Cambodia’s state secretary of civil aviation clarified that this ban also extended to seven other CNRP officials as well as Tioulong Saumura, Rainsy’s wife.

Without offering evidence, on September 26, a Phnom Penh court charged eight leading members of the CNRP who had left Cambodia ahead of the July 2018 elections – Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua, Ou Chanrith, Eng Chhai Eang, Men Sothavarin, Long Ry, Tob Van Chan, and Ho Vann – with attempting to stage a coup.

During the last week of October, photos circulated of armed military and other security units holding anti-protest trainings and marching down streets with military tanks through villages in Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces close to the Thai-Cambodia border. The CNRP leadership had previously announced  they would seek to enter Cambodia via Thai land borders. On October 30, the Voice of America reported that Interior Minister Sar Kheng ordered local officials to monitor people in villages and to direct them to stay away from any anti-government activities on November 9. Posters of exiled CNRP leaders have been placed at Malaysian and Cambodian-Thai border crossings, the media reported. On November 5, government-aligned Fresh News reported that over 40 checkpoint crossings at the Cambodian-Thai border were closed.

On November 6, Hor Nambora, Cambodia’s ambassador to Indonesia, arrived uninvited at a news conference in Jakarta by CNRP Vice-President Mu Sochua, and disrupted the proceedings by seizing the microphone. He told the organizers to end the news conference, told journalists to be silent, and told an Indonesian police officer there to arrest Sochua. He then left, and the news conference continued.

Since Rainsy announced that he would return to Cambodia, the Cambodian authorities have arrested 92 suspected CNRP activists and others on various charges, including plotting against the state, incitement to commit a felony, and discrediting judicial decisions, and detained 45 of them.

“It’s ridiculous that the Cambodian government is treating a political party that has always engaged in nonviolence as a military threat,” Adams said. “The government should immediately end this harassment campaign against the political opposition, drop all politically motivated charges, and unconditionally release those wrongfully held.”   

The authorities have forced about 143 opposition members to surrender to police and publicly denounce the CNRP to avoid arrest for “plotting” under article 454 of Cambodia’s penal code, the Phnom Penh Post reported.

The authorities should also impartially investigate the death on October 30 of Som Bopha, a CNRP activist in Svay Rieng province, after she fell from a police officer’s motorbike while being taken to the police station. At the time of her arrest, Bopha told the police that she was feeling ill and was unable to sit on the motorbike. A video posted on Facebook shows her severely injured after she fell.

In November 2017, the government-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 party members from political activity for five years; 109 of them are still banned. 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 125 seats in the National Assembly, effectively making Cambodia a one-party state.

Under article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is party, “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.”

“Sam Rainsy and other opposition leaders have the right under international law to return home and engage in peaceful political activities,” Adams said. “Foreign governments and donors should make it clear to the Cambodian government that it must restore genuine political pluralism or face consequences.”    

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