Ir Channa, a Candlelight Party member living in Norway, was arrested during his visit to Phnom Penh on May 30 and charged with plotting and incitement causing disturbance to social security.
Rong Chhun, the representative of the civil society group Cambodian Watchdog Council in Cambodia, said that Channa’s arrest amounts to political persecution because he was actively campaigning in support of the opposition Candlelight Party for the upcoming commune council elections this weekend.
According to the Ministry of Interior, Channa had also supported the unsuccessful return attempt in 2019 by exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy.
Chhay Kim Khoeun, the National Police spokesman, said of Channa’s arrest, “We have implemented the court arrest warrant and he is now in pretrial detention.” He declined to comment further.
Channa’s brother, who declined to be named, said that Channa arrived in Cambodia from Norway on May 27.
According to Chhun, Channa had fled Cambodia in 2005, when the Cambodian Watchdog Council issued a statement criticizing the supplementary agreement – approved by the National Assembly – between Cambodia and Vietnam to their 1985 border treaty.
Chhun also cautioned that Channa’s arrest would not reflect well on the election process, which should be free and fair. He said that people who criticize the government are often victimized and hampered from carrying out political activity; while those who defect to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party are granted a pardon.
Khieu Sopheak, the spokesman of the Interior Ministry, rejected the Cambodian Watchdog Council’s claims that the government is cracking down on political activists in the period leading up to the commune council elections on June 5.
He accused the group of forcing people to support the return of Sam Rainsy, and also said that civil society groups often serve the opposition party’s agenda so that they could better seek funds for their organization.
“Whatever civil society groups say… when they are strongly chanting, donors will give them more money,” Sopheak said.
Am Sam Ath, operation director of the human rights group LICADHO, said that the arrest of Ir Channa seems to be linked to his current political activity – noting that Channa is the Candlelight Party’s provincial deputy for Takeo province.
“Although he was arrested in connection to his support of Sam Rainsy, at the same time we have seen that he was participating in campaigning for the upcoming commune council elections,” he said.
In November 2020, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court began the mass trial of some 130 former Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) members and supporters on plotting and incitement charges – linked to their support of the attempted return to Cambodia of Sam Rainsy in 2019, to topple Hun Sen’s government. Ir Channa is also a former CNRP member.
Both vice presidents of the Candlelight Party, Son Chhay and Thach Satha, could not be reached for comment.