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(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally drop the charges and release an opposition activist arrested in Pursat province, Human Rights Watch said today.

Chum Sarath, in a photograph posted to former CNRP parliamentarian Kong Saphea’s Facebook page, October 6, 2020. Source: Kong Saphea/Facebook

On October 6, 2020, police arrested Chum Sarath, a former elected commune councilor from dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Anlong Reap commune, Pursat province. The charges date back to a land dispute in 2014 between affected villagers and the timber tycoon Try Pheap’s M.D.S. Import Export Co. company. At that time, M.D.S. lodged a complaint against Chum Sarath, alleging that he had cleared forest using a machete. The case had been dormant.

“Digging up old cases of dubious wrongdoing to silence critics is a longtime tactic of the Cambodian government,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should immediately drop the case against Chum Sarath and other activists unjustly held.”

Chum Sarath, 66, was elected as a local commune councilor during the nationwide commune council elections in 2017, but was removed from office when the ruling party-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017. Since then, the authorities had repeatedly harassed Sarath, and local police and unidentified persons carried out surveillance of his home in Pursat. In the revived case, the Pursat provincial court charged Sarath with illegal occupation of property and use of violence against a possessor of land (articles 248 and 253 of Cambodia’s Land Law) and ordered him held in pretrial detention at the Pursat provincial prison.

In December 2019, the United States Treasury Department brought Global Magnitsky Act sanctions against tycoon Try Pheap after finding him to be involved in widespread corruption, including “misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.” The US Office of Foreign Assets Control added 11 companies owned or controlled by Try Pheap, including M.D.S. Import Export Co., to its sanctions list.

In another recent case, on September 22, the Tbong Khmum provincial court convicted seven opposition activists – Sim Seangleng, Mean La, Yem Vanneth, Chok Hour, Kong Sam An, Van Sophat, and Choem Vannak – of conspiracy (article 453 of Cambodia’s penal code). The case was based on charges stemming from Facebook comments they posted between 2018 and 2019 in support of a leading political opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, and his planned return to Cambodia in November 2019. The court imposed prison sentences of up to seven years against the seven activists. Kong Sam An was the only defendant in the courtroom; the other defendants, who are in hiding or abroad, were convicted in absentia.

On October 7, Prime Minister Hun Sen gave a speech in Kandal province in which he alluded to political opposition and activist figures who speak out or engage in other activities, declaring that “if one emerges, one gets hit; if two emerge, then two get hit.” In the speech, he said there would be further arrests of opposition activists.

The Cambodian government has ramped up its crackdown on dissent during the Covid-19 pandemic by adopting repressive laws. A state of emergency law has been enacted, but not yet put into effect. The government is currently drafting legislation that, it is feared, will drastically limit internet freedom and online expression. As of October, there are 55 political prisoners – including opposition activists, environmental and youth activists, and journalists – who are arbitrarily detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, Human Rights Watch said.

“The social and economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has not stopped Prime Minister Hun Sen from trying to crush any and all perceived opponents,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments, the United Nations, and donors should call out Hun Sen for his unrelenting human rights abuses.”

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