(New York) – The Cambodian government should cease arresting and detaining former opposition party members and rights activists for exercising their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today in launching its updated webpage of political prisoners. The Cambodian government is currently holding nearly 60 political prisoners throughout the country.
“The dozens of politically motivated arrests over the past three months demonstrate that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has no intention of lifting the heavy-handed repression that has darkened Cambodia in recent years,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign governments and donors should loudly call for an end to this wave of arrests and press Cambodia to immediately and unconditionally release all those wrongfully detained for criticizing the government.”
On August 16, 2019, a group of former members of the judicially dissolved opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), announced that the exiled party leader Sam Rainsy and others planned to return to Cambodia on November 9. Since then, Cambodian authorities have arrested dozens of people. More than 50 former CNRP members have been charged with crimes and 31 have been jailed. Arrests are continuing. Among the charges routinely being filed are plotting against the state, incitement to commit a felony, and discrediting judicial decisions – all of which appear to be baseless and politically motivated.
Among those arrested or jailed are:
- Thoun Bunthorn, a former CNRP provincial council member in Rattanakiri and Ngin Sophat, a former CNRP district chief in the Rattanakiri town of Banglung were arrested on September 21, after they had expressed support on their Facebook accounts for the CNRP leadership’s return to Cambodia in November. They were accused of plotting to overthrow the government.
- Kem Sokha, the CNRP leader, was arrested on September 3, 2017 for allegedly committing treason. Two years after his arrest on fabricated charges, Sokha remains under restrictive judicial supervision amounting to house arrest. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled that he is being arbitrary detained. He is prohibited from leaving the area within a block radius of his house, meeting with opposition members, journalists, and foreigners, and conducting political activities. If convicted of treason, he faces up to 30 years in prison.
- Nuth Pich, a former CNRP official, was arrested on August 17 on charges of “incitement to commit a felony” and that he had “discredited a judicial decision” after he had helped organize gatherings of former CNRP members to eat “Khmer noodles.” Authorities have treated these noodle-eating gatherings as acts of resistance to the decision of the government-controlled Supreme Court in November 2017 to dissolve the CNRP.
The Cambodian government’s crackdown on the political opposition and other independent voices has caused many CNRP leaders to flee abroad in recent years. On March 12, a court issued arrest warrants for eight leading members of the CNRP who had left Cambodia ahead of the July 2018 election – Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua, Ou Chanrith, Eng Chhai Eang, Men Sothavarin, Long Ry, Tob Van Chan, and Ho Vann. On September 26, the court, without factual basis, charged all eight with attempting to stage a coup. The justice system has also been used to harass and prosecute former CNRP members remaining in the country.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has repeatedly threatened to arrest any CNRP leader in exile who returns to Cambodia. On September 17, he declared that 10 ASEAN countries had received Cambodian arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy.
The updated Human Rights Watch Cambodian political prisoner webpage includes those being held in pretrial detention, including former members and supporters of the CNRP, rights activists, dissidents, journalists, and ordinary citizens who expressed their opinions online. Previously held political prisoners – who have been subsequently released because they served their sentence, were released on bail while awaiting trial, or received a royal pardon – are also profiled on the page in a separate section.
“The Cambodian government is rapidly filling its jails with activists who dare speak out about abuses, post criticism on Facebook, and meet opposition colleagues for Khmer noodles,” Robertson said. “EU decision-makers should be considering Cambodia’s deep downward spiral on human rights when looking toward next steps on rights and trade relations.”