Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Another Opposition Party Member Arrested Ahead of The Council Elections

Phou Sovantha talks at a meeting with his party members in Battambang province on August 27, 2023.
Phou Sovantha talks at a meeting with his party members in Battambang province on August 27, 2023.

A Battambang province Khmer Will Party member, who will be running in the provincial council election on May 26, was arrested on defamation and incitement charges following a complaint by a former party colleague. He has been detained in prison since Monday.

The arrest, including several others involving opposition leaders and unionists over the past few weeks, has been seen as an attempt to intimidate opposition leaders in the run-up to the council elections, Khmer Will Party (KWP) spokesperson said.

Phou Sovantha was arrested after he showed up for questioning at the Battambang Provincial Court following a complaint by ex-Candlelight Party official Dim Saroeun, who defected to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). 

According to the court’s statement on Monday, the prosecutor’s investigation found adequate evidence which was consistent with the complaint against Sovantha. He is alleged to have taken a picture of Dim Saroeun which was posted on Facebook with the “intention of inciting, discriminating, and disrespecting” the complainant.

“To ensure the legitimate right of an individual [Dim Saroeun] and prevent an offense and action to disturb public order and security […] prosecutor representative decided to detain and charge this person [Phou Sovantha],” the statement read. 

Provincial police chief Sat Kimsean confirmed the arrest but declined to comment further.

Cambodia will be holding the provincial, municipal and district council elections on May 26. Several leaders have been arrested since the start of this year for allegedly tampering with the election process.

Last week, Nation Power Party president Sun Chanthy was arrested and charged with incitement to disturb social order as he arrived from Japan. Candlelight Party president Teav Vannol has a case pending in court for allegedly commenting that Cambodia’s democracy has been regressing under Prime Minister Hun Manet.

Candlelight Party secretary-general Ly Sothearayuth told CamboJA News that some 12 opposition members were arrested by police as of April this year.

Sam Vongdara, Battambang Candlelight Party chief, who accompanied Sovantha said he was brought back to the provincial commissioner’s headquarters after being questioned.

He believed that Sovantha’s arrest stemmed from “an argument of criticism” on Facebook between him and Saroeun. “I dare not say much because the public can understand the situation in the run-up to the election where not only he was arrested but other party’s members as well. They have been suffering due to lawsuits.”

Vongdara stated that Sovantha is a former provincial chief for Candlelight Party while Saroeun was his deputy, but the latter defected to the CPP.

Sovantha’s wife, Chea Phatdav, called on the court officials to release her husband, saying he was innocent. “My husband has never incited anyone or had arguments,” she said.

“They sent him to prison on Monday evening,” Phatdav said, which Vongdara later confirmed.

KWP spokesperson Kimsour Phearith expressed his disappointment that opposition party members still experienced prosecution which has impacted the political scene and election mood.

“It will affect the voters [comprising commune councilors]​ who would not be able to decide who to vote for. We can say the election process is neither free nor fair,” he added.

Phearith opined that the arrest was a result of an argument, thus any legal action should be taken after the elections.

Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan could not be reached for comment. Court spokesperson Chea Chanreaksmey was also not reachable.