BANGKOK – The Cambodian government should end its “assault” on opposition members and drop all politically charges against them after a spike in arrests ahead of an exiled opposition leader’s return to the country, a Southeast Asian rights group said Tuesday.
On Sept. 7, Sam Rainsy – the co-founder and acting president of the Supreme Court-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – announced he and other senior leaders will return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, the country’s Independence Day.
Eight activists have been arrested in Cambodia in the past two weeks, and at least 26 so far this year, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights group said in a statement Tuesday.
“The timing of these most recent arrests is preposterous. They are a clear attempt to threaten and silence opposition members and any activists showing support for the return of CNRP leaders,” said the APHR Chair and Malaysian member of parliament, Charles Santiago.
“Will (Cambodian Prime Minister) Hun Sen only stop spreading fear once all his critics are behind bars?” he asked.
The government-aligned Fresh News reported Monday that Cambodian police said they had detained three former CNRP activists allegedly charged with conspiring and inciting for social insecurity, and more are “being chased” in Kandal province.
Last week, Hun Sen said he would issue a warrant for Rainsy’s arrest to all ASEAN member states and has vowed to arrest the members on their return.
He was speaking at Phnom Penh’s Peace Palace alongside Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, who added he would not allow the opposition leader to use his country to attack Cambodia.
Rainsy left the country in 2015 and is wanted on defamation and other charges, which are widely considered to be politically motivated.
He was also sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison in May for insulting the king and inciting military personnel to disobedience and demoralizing the army.
Fresh News also reported Tuesday that on his return, Rainsy will face double the maximum prison sentence for another charge of allegedly insulting the king, according to the Cambodian justice ministry.
In the announcement of his return, Rainsy said: “A continuing shift to totalitarianism has seen the arbitrary dissolution of the only parliamentary opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the arrest and continuing detention of its leader Kem Sokha, and severe repression of political opponents, civil society and independent media.”
He added that “despite the large numbers of legal convictions and arrest warrants against me, I have decided to return to attempt to halt and reverse this embrace of authoritarianism” and “re-establish democracy in the face of blind power.”
The popular CNRP was the only real threat to Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party in the July 2018 general elections, but it was dissolved by the Supreme Court ahead of the polls in Nov. 2017, effectively making Cambodia a one-party state.
Former CNRP president and activist Kem Sokha was arrested for treason in the middle of the night on Sept. 4, 2017, which is also widely seen as being politically motivated.
After a year in pre-trial detention, he was released on bail last September and placed under house arrest, where he remains.
APHR said that since the beginning of the year more than 147 CNRP members and supporters have been summoned for questioning and eight former opposition members living in exile were charged for allegedly “plotting” and “inciting to commit a felony.”
In June, United Nations special rapporteurs called on the Cambodian government Wednesday to end moves to intimidate or silence political opponents.