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Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a speech in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Thursday, January 30, 2020. © Heng Sinith/AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government has stepped up its attacks on political opposition members in advance of national elections slated for July 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately end the government’s violent rhetoric, release the seven political activists currently detained, and investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for recent assaults on opposition Candlelight Party members.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has a history of explicitly threatening physical violence and arrests against political opponents. During a speech on January 9 in Kampong Cham province, he warned the opposition not to criticize the ruling Cambodian People’s Party ahead of the upcoming elections. Since then, a number of opposition party members have been assaulted in Phnom Penh in broad daylight while others were convicted on politically motivated election forgery charges.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen is using every repressive tool at his disposal to rid Cambodia of any political opposition ahead of the July elections,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign governments should send a clear public message that dismantling opposition parties and disqualifying, assaulting, and arresting their members before election day means that there won’t be any real election at all.”

In his January 9 speech, Hun Sen offered his opponents the choice between accepting the rulings of the courts, which the ruling party has long controlled, or violence, stating: “I want to ask you, there are only two ways: one is the legal system, another one, the stick. Which one do you want out of those two?” He rejected any assertion that opposition complaints about previous elections are protected by freedom of expression: “You speak of rights to freedom of expression, I can respond by mobilizing people at your location, [and] follow you to your house.” He ended the speech with a final warning: “[B]e careful, if my temper is not controlled, you will be split up.”

Since that speech, seven reported acts of violence have targeted a total of six opposition party members. Three instances occurred following a Candlelight Party planning meeting in Phnom Penh on March 18 for the July elections. Four additional cases were reported following a March 20 visit by party activists to the United Nations human rights office in Phnom Penh and their participation in a public gathering calling for the release of political prisoners.

In March and April, Human Rights Watch interviewed four of the six opposition party members who were assaulted.

The attacks had multiple similarities, suggesting that the same people were responsible for all of them. All four attacks were carried out by two men in dark clothes with dark motorcycle helmets riding a single motorbike, with the driver remaining on the bike while the passenger assaulted the victim. In three attacks, the assailants used an extendable metal baton as a weapon. In two attacks, the victims could hear the attackers confirming the victims’ identity moments before they were assaulted. No money or valuables were stolen. All of those interviewed said they believe they were targeted because of their participation in Candlelight Party activities.

Following Hun Sen’s speech, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced 13 other members of the political opposition to prison terms on politically motivated charges. On March 24, the Court announced the convictions of Seam Pluk, the jailed co-founder of the opposition Cambodia National Heart Party, and 12 others on charges related to forgery of party registration documents. Pluk was sentenced to 30 months in prison while the other 12 defendants received two-year sentences, plus hefty fines.

On April 12, the authorities arrested and continue to detain two additional Candlelight Party members on forgery charges related to the party’s candidate lists, which had been approved nearly a year earlier. And on March 21, two opposition members were arrested for “insulting the monarchy” on Facebook. One was soon released after he publicly apologized to the king and Hun Sen, while the other remains in pre-trial detention.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, raised concerns about attacks on political space in Cambodia in a March 7 statement. He said: “In Cambodia, the Government continues to suppress political opposition, human rights defenders and independent media … These actions seriously undermine the civic and political space, including the environment for free and fair elections in July.”

Cambodia’s major trade partners such as the European Union, United States, and United Kingdom should send clear messages to the government that future economic and political engagement will be linked to Cambodia’s compliance with its international human rights obligations. Governments including Japan, EU member countries, and Australia that have financially supported election processes or conducted election monitoring in Cambodia should publicly raise serious concerns about rights abuses against opposition political leaders and activists before the election, Human Rights Watch said.

“Cambodia’s partners should call on the government to immediately release detained opposition activists and remove all unnecessary barriers to political party participation,” Robertson said. “Hun Sen should recognize that his campaign antics – from threatening speeches to political prosecutions – do little more than chisel his authoritarian legacy into stone.”

For details about the attacks on opposition members, please see below.

Assaults on Political Opposition Activists

Because of concerns for their security, the names of the four activists who provided accounts of assaults are pseudonyms.

Sophal, March 18

Sophal, an active member of the Candlelight Party, said that he was leaving a party meeting at about noon on March 18 in Sangkat Phnom Penh Thmei, in Phnom Penh, when two men on a motorbike cut in front of his motorbike, forcing him to stop. One man stayed on the motorbike and said “Hit him! Hit him!” while the passenger ran toward Sophal holding an extendable metal baton, yelling “That’s the one!” He struck Sophal at least five times with the baton, hitting him until he fell to the ground.

Sophal said he suffered severe bruises on his forearm and chest. He said that two other similar attacks occurred in Phnom Penh against active members of the party, on March 18 and 19. He did not report the attack to the police because he worried that if he were publicly identified, he and his family members could face possible retaliation from those responsible.

Vathanak, March 27

Following these attacks, on March 20, five Candlelight Party members, including the three people who had been attacked, visited the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh. Vathanak, who had not been assaulted, was among the five. He said that at about 6 p.m. on March 27, he was walking in front of his home in Phnom Penh when he heard someone from behind him say “Is it him?” Before he could turn around, Vathanak felt a sharp object hit him on the left side of his head.

He looked back to find one man on a motorbike and one man standing near him holding what looked like a large metal blade. When Vathanak asked, “Why did you hit me?”, the men drove off. Vathanak had a deep cut on his head that required 13 stitches. He filed a complaint with the local police but did not want to publicize further details because of fear of possible retaliation against him and his family.

Pheakdey, April 6

At about 8:05 a.m. on April 6, Pheakdey, a youth organizer for the Candlelight Party, was returning to his car in Phnom Penh after buying coffee when he saw two men in black clothes and black helmets on a motorbike riding toward him at high speed. Pheakdey waited to open his car door on the street side, afraid that he might hit the motorbike. When it was about 10 meters away, he saw the motorbike passenger pull out an extendable metal baton, similar to the one Sophal described.

While riding past, the passenger struck Pheakdey once with the baton, bruising his left shoulder. Pheakdey decided to go directly to the UN human rights office following the attack. But after he drove about 400 meters, he saw the same motorbike approaching him from behind. When the motorbike pulled even with his car, the passenger threw a stone at his driver’s side window, shattering it. Pheakdey heard the passenger shout “Kill you!” while pointing his finger at Pheakdey. The motorbike then turned around and drove away.

Pheakdey believes he is being targeted because on March 30 he submitted a letter to the Phnom Penh Municipal Administration to notify the authorities that he intended to organize a gathering on April 7 to call for the release of all political prisoners. The government denied the application on the basis that it violated criminal code articles 522 and 523 – attempting to coerce judicial authorities or criticize court rulings – because the political prisoner cases were pending.

While governments can place limitations on speech and protests that would genuinely interfere with specific court cases, broad-based restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly violate fundamental rights. The UN Basic Principles on the Independence of the Judiciary state that judges “should generally avoid the use of the criminal law and contempt proceedings to restrict [legitimate public] criticism of the courts.”

Vanna, April 8

Vanna, a Candlelight Party member, said that he was attacked on April 8 around 8 a.m. while driving to work on his motorbike in Phnom Penh. Two people dressed in black and wearing black motorbike helmets that covered their faces drove by on a motorbike and attacked him with an extendable metal baton. They struck Vanna twice, on his left arm and on his left shoulder, causing him to stop his motorbike.

The assailants then turned their bike around to approach him again. The passenger jumped off and ran toward him. Vanna tried to run, but the attacker hit him from behind at least five times with the baton.

Vanna ran about 100 meters yelling “thief, thief,” then reached a crowd of bystanders, whose presence apparently deterred the attacker. Vanna said he had welts on both his arms, his right leg, shoulders, and back. He filed a police complaint but did not want to publicize further details because of fear of possible retaliation. Vanna believes he was attacked for being a Candlelight Party member and joining its gathering on April 7 in Phnom Penh.

Forgery Case Against Opposition Party Members

On March 24, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced the convictions of Seam Pluk, co-founder of the opposition Cambodia National Heart Party, and 12 others on charges related to forgery under articles 626, 627, and 628 of the criminal code. The court sentenced Pluk to 30 months in prison and the other 12 defendants to two-year terms. Each defendant was ordered to pay a fine of five million riel (US$1,250).

The government’s forgery case was connected to efforts to register the party. On November 16, 2021, the Interior Ministry rejected the application, claiming the party had forged 200 of the 4,700 supporters’ thumbprints submitted for registration. The ministry contended that about 200 thumbprints were duplicated, unidentifiable, or inconsistent with identity documents.

Trial monitors observed that even if the 200 challenged thumbprints were appropriately rejected, it is not clear that the prosecution met the necessary evidentiary standard to establish that a crime had been committed or committed by all the defendants. Seam Pluk appealed the party registration decision, but in December 2021, the government-controlled Supreme Court rejected the appeal.

Pluk had been in pre-trial detention since April 2022, and three co-defendants were taken into custody just a few hours before the verdict. The authorities did not provide reasons for their arrests. All are current Candlelight Party members. Touch Theung, 74, is its Kampong Cham provincial head; Khoeun Virath, 33, is a member of the commune council in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tumpun 2 commune; and Nou Sitheary, 63, is a commune council member in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey 1 commune.

The nine other defendants are Chea Sopheak, Chhim Savath, Chhorng Hor, Long Houn, Phap Khun, Phly Chhunheng, Phly Menghong, Reth Chanratana, and Sean Pheap.

On April 12, the authorities arrested two additional Candlelight Party members on forgery charges related to its candidate lists submitted and accepted in Kansom Ork commune prior to the June 2022 commune elections. The government charged Eang Chea, the party’s deputy chief of Kansom Ork commune; and Heng Sam Oeun, head of the party’s executive committee in Kampong Trabek district, under the criminal code’s forgery articles.

Both remain in pretrial detention though there is no apparent evidence they are a flight risk or could tamper with the evidence. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in article 9 encourages bail for criminal suspects, stating: “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial.”

Lese Majeste (Insulting the Monarchy) Arrests

On March 21, the authorities arrested two members of opposition parties, Yim Sinorn and Hun Kosal, on charges of insulting the monarchy. Authorities arrested Sinorn, a close aide to the persecuted opposition leader Kem Sokha, and Kosal, a former Cambodia National Rescue Party youth activist, for posting messages on Facebook stating that the king’s power and throne were being “harmed” and needed protection.

On the morning of March 22, Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a graduation speech to students in Phnom Penh that there will be no forgiveness for Sinorn and Kosal for insulting the monarchy. Lese majeste was introduced into Cambodia’s penal code in 2018 amid domestic and international criticism. The charge carries a penalty of one to five years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500 for individuals. Sinorn was released on March 28 after offering a public apology via a video and letter to the king and Hun Sen, while Kosal remains in pretrial detention.

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