Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

After release on bail, Candlelight Party commune chief remains in limbo

Nhem Sarom speaks to media during an interview at his home being elected Candlelight Party commune chief in Chamna Loeu commune, Kampong Thom province. Photo taken on June 8, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath
Nhem Sarom speaks to media during an interview at his home being elected Candlelight Party commune chief in Chamna Loeu commune, Kampong Thom province. Photo taken on June 8, 2022. CamboJA/ Sorn Sarath

Nhem Sarom, the newly-elected Candlelight Party commune chief in Kampong Thom who was arrested Tuesday for a robbery allegedly carried out 20 years ago was released on bail Wednesday. Speaking to CamboJA a day after his release, Sarom called the arrest politically motivated.

“I think that being locked up in a court case would disrupt my work as commune chief,” he said. “I ask the court to drop the charges so that I can fulfill my duties to serve the people.”

Sarom said that in 20 years, he never received a court order related to the alleged robbery and said he fears the ongoing case would disrupt his role as commune chief.

Sarom is one of just four opposition candidates to have won commune chief seats in the June 5 elections. The other 1,648 seats went to the ruling party. His arrest drew criticism from rights groups who called it politically motivated.

The alleged robbery took place in 2002, with court officials saying an arrest warrant from the Kampong Thom Provincial Court was issued ten years later, on June 21, 2012. According to So Sovannareth, spokesman for Kampong Thom Provincial Court, four defendants, including Sarom, were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison in 2014.

Sarom told CamboJA he was unaware of the 2012 arrest warrant or that he was sentenced in absentia.

Sarom’s wife, Khat Sakheang, said the plaintiff had accused her husband of taking a generator — which the family maintains was held for non-payment of debt. She said the plaintiff sued for trespassing and theft, but Sarom paid an out-of-court settlement of $1,000 after which he asked the plaintiff to withdraw the complaint.

While Sarom raised concern that the ongoing case could interfere with his work, Hang Puthea, spokesman for the National Election Commission (NEC), said that he could still be appointed commune chief.

“The case is not yet completed and [he] is still appealing, so the NEC retains his name as an elected candidate,” he said.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the Candlelight Party said authorities were using the court system to persecute the opposition.

Cambodian People’s Party’s (CPP) spokesman Sok Eysan called the Candlelight Party’s statement defamation and said the party would face legal action. Already, the CPP has filed a lawsuit against the Candlelight Party’s vice president Son Chhay after he criticized the recent commune elections in the media, denying they were free and fair.

“The victim [CPP] did not cause any trouble, but when the opposition slandered someone’s reputation without proof, that is not a right,” he said. “You have the right [to do anything], but do not touch the rights of others.”

Other newly elected opposition commune chiefs said Sarom’s case had them worried.

Yab Yot, 52, who won Kraya commune, Kampong Thom province, was sued for extortion in 2013. While the case was dropped last year, he said he was now concerned it could be reopened or that he could face fresh charges.

“I am also concerned because I was previously accused of extorting money during my time as commune chief of the Sam Rainsy Party in 2013,” he said, adding that commune chiefs from opposition parties need to be extremely careful when performing duties.

“Otherwise, we could face charges in any form because we are under surveillance and that is true when we make a mistake, they will arrest us immediately and they will never forgive us,” he said.

In Doung commune, Kampong Thom, newly elected commune chief Ping Sokhorn said such threats were part of the territory.

“We always face this kind of challenge, we are like soldiers on the battlefield who have to face obstacles all the time,” he said. “I always advise my team to be very careful in doing something, we must only follow the law, what is against the law we must avoid.”

Political analyst Em Sovanara noted that from the beginning of the election campaign until now the opposition party has faced heavy pressure.

“When freedom is restricted, it affects the overall democratic mechanism,” he said. “If human rights activists, political activists and environmental activists were abused and detained, it would lead to the loss of the free and fair elections process.”