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Cambodia: End Crackdown on Opposition

Free Wrongfully Held Activists, Drop Charges

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures during a speech on the current state of the coronavirus in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Heng Sinith

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should end its crackdown on the political opposition carried out since the outbreak of Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said today.

From January through June 2020, Cambodian authorities have detained 15 people on fabricated political charges. Another 80 people released on bail face re-arrest at any time. The authorities should immediately release 32 prisoners and pretrial detainees held on politically motivated charges, including 23 members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Donors and other concerned governments should publicly call on Prime Minister Hun Sen to release all political prisoners and detainees.

“The Cambodian government should stop using the world’s attention on the Covid-19 pandemic as cover to crack down on the opposition,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Concerned governments should make it clear that Prime Minister Hun Sen can’t hide behind a deadly virus to commit rampant rights violations.”

In the first weeks after the pandemic’s outbreak, the Cambodian authorities arrested over 30 people based on allegations that they had spread “fake news” about the virus in Cambodia. Among those arrested were opposition activists, a child, ordinary citizens speaking out on Facebook, and journalists. During May and June, police arrested several opposition members based on case files dating back to 2019.

On June 1, Prime Minister Hun Sen claimed that the CNRP was trying to use the pandemic to “cause chaos.” He alluded to a statement by exiled former opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, that borrowers unable to repay their debts should not have to sell their land or homes to pay back their debtors. Hun Sen threatened CRNP activists with arrest, repeating “If you act, I will arrest.”

On May 31, police arrested Kak Komphear, the chief of the Phnom Penh executive committee of the CNRP, on politically motivated charges of conspiracy and incitement. This followed another case in 2019 in which he was sentenced to 20 months in absentia.

On June 5, Phnom Penh police detained Heng Chansothy, a CNRP member, on charges of conspiracy and incitement. The authorities had previously arrested Chansothy on November 6, 2019. He was one of over 60 opposition members arrested in the three months prior to the announced return of the exiled CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and others on November 9. He was released on bail on November 15 after the Cambodian government imposed restrictive measures that prevented their return. On June 3, the authorities claimed he violated his bail conditions by failing to report to the police station on a regular basis, leading to his re-arrest. Chansothy’s lawyer rejects the allegations that he violated his bail conditions.

On June 8, Phnom Penh’s Appeals Court rejected 10 applications for bail filed by detained opposition figures. The authorities have charged them with incitement and conspiracy to incite military personnel to disobedience based on acts allegedly committed during January and February 2018.

Many opposition leadership figures remain in exile out of fear of arrest. In recent weeks, Human Rights Watch has received credible reports that Cambodian officials and agents have carried out surveillance of opposition members living in neighboring countries.

Kem Sokha, the CNRP leader, while released on bail, still faces a trial based on unsubstantiated treason charges. The authorities announced that, due to the pandemic, the trial, which began in January, would be delayed indefinitely.

The Hun Sen government has also used the pretext of a Covid-19 response to pushstate of emergency law through parliament that allows further suppression of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The law raises concerns around its wide scope of unfettered martial powers and unqualified restrictions on civil rights that allow the government to arbitrarily surveil private communications and silence independent media outlets.

Governments need to respond publicly and meaningfully to the Cambodian government’s crackdown, Human Rights Watch said. On February 12, the European Commission announced the partial suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade preferences with the European Union after the government failed to address serious human rights concerns, including its crackdown on the political opposition.

“The European Union and its member states should factor in the Cambodian government’s renewed crackdown on opposition members when finalizing Cambodia’s partial suspension of trade preferences,” Robertson said.

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