Chhuk district, Kampot province — The slight rain that was falling on the morning of October 14 wasn’t enough to stop Nut Pich from making his mandatory monthly appearance at the police station after he was arrested in August 2019 and charged with incitement for plotting.
Pich, a former CNRP deputy chief executive for Chhuk district, was charged for allegedly garnering support for acting party leader Sam Rainsy, who had made plans starting in August 2019 to return to Cambodia from exile in France as part of a “people power” movement to establish democratic competition.
On the 14th of every month, Pich drives his motorbike from Sra Nge village to Boeng Nimol commune police station, each time worrying that he will be arrested as the court prepares for his trial. A hearing was set for October 5, but was delayed as Pich does not have an attorney.
“I am afraid because I have been in jail once,” he said. “I am afraid since they arrested [former CNRP official] Pen Mom, and I don’t want to be jailed twice.”
The Kampot Provincial Court granted him bail in November last year under court supervision, obligating him to present himself at the police station once per month and forbidding him from moving houses or leaving the country. A former CNRP executive working group member in Kampot province’s Kandorl commune, Mom was arrested for plotting in October last year and was sentenced to five years imprisonment in mid-September.
Pich, 64, said that he had served as a district councilor for two mandates with the Sam Rainsy Party, after which he served as the deputy chief executive for Chhuk district for the CNRP until it was dissolved in 2017.
Sitting at his house at Sra Nge village with his wife By Mom and other family members, Pich read out the court summons for his hearing, and said he was worried that he would be re-arrested and convicted like Pen Mom.
“I will not attend the trial,” he said, stating that he was innocent. “If we can flee, we won’t go to court, because it is a serious accusation.”
Court warrants obtained show that three other former opposition party members in Kampot have also been charged in the case: Nget Khuch, Heng Ser, and Dang Chamroeun, a former CNRP lawmaker who has already fled the country. The three and Pich were charged in April and May with incitement to commit a felony.
“Right now, we can’t do anything. Even when I am working [in the rice paddy] I am still thinking about it, and we have no hope,” Pich said. “It is putting stress on us and it is still always on my mind. My family members are worried too.”
He spends his days tending to his 2-hectare rice paddy field, but every waking hour is laced with fear that he will be arrested.
“Even when we sleep at night, when we wake up, we are relieved that they haven’t arrested us yet, but they might arrest us at any time.”
“When I go to the police station, I don’t know whether they will arrest me, so it is upsetting, but I do not have a choice,” Pich said.
He recalled that police officials had apprehended him on his property on August 17last year, and placed him in prison for three months.
“I was arrested while I was planting rice paddy,” he said. “That day, three or four people wearing civilian clothes walked directly over to me while I was carrying a hoe, and they asked if anyone was selling land in the area, and I told them I didn’t know.”
“While we were chatting, one of the men had gotten close to me and forced me to the ground in the muddy rice field and handcuffed me to bring me to the district and provincial police stations, where police showed me the court letter and placed me into prison,” he said.
Pich said he refused to admit to the crime because he was innocent, despite the efforts of police and military police officials to get him to admit to his crime.
“I did nothing wrong,” he said. “I have never helped start a people power movement. I don’t know how I can confess if I didn’t commit a crime.”
He said he thought the CPP’s crackdown against former opposition members was due to the ruling party’s fears that it could lose ground in the 2022 commune elections and 2023 national election if faced by a valid opponent.
In 2013, the opposition CNRP pushed the ruling party to near defeat in the national election. But the party was controversially dissolved by Supreme Court order in 2017, allowing the CPP to sweep all 125 seats in the 2018 election.
Boeng Nimol Commune Police Chief Nhe Sing attested to Pich’s presence at the police station each month in accordance with his court supervision.
“He shows up every month on the 14th to follow the court’s order,” he said. “We do not ask many questions, we just need him to appear at the police office.”
“He committed incitement by gathering about 10 to 20 people,” Sing said, adding that Pich’s arrest was based on a court warrant.
Commune Chief Torl Yang said that he does not know details of the incitement case because the crime had not been committed in his commune.
“I don’t know much related to his issue because it is the work of the top leaders,” he said. “He didn’t commit a crime in my jurisdiction.”
Provincial court spokesman Mann Boret on October 14 confirmed the court had postponed the trial and that the judges had not yet rescheduled the hearing.
Another former party member, Heng Ser, who is in hiding due to the pending court case, denied all charges and said the court’s accusations against him were baseless.
“I have never gathered people in an attempt to help the return of Sam Rainsy,” he said. “I am not involved.”
“I always worry because I have never believed the court officials,” Ser added, appealing to the court to drop the charges against him.
In September, the Kampot provincial court had found former party member Pen Mom guilty of plotting and incitement, sentencing her to five years in prison.
Speaking at his home in Toek Chhou district’s Kandorl commune, Mom’s husband Kin Nhean, 55, called on the court to release his wife, insisting she is innocent.
“She has not done any [political] activity since the party was dissolved,” he said.
“It is based on Prime Minister Hun Sen and the courts because the arrests and acquittals are up to him,” Nhean said.
“I believe the [CPP wants to break up dissenting groups] because I have seen the arrests of many activists who dared to express their opinions, like teacher Rong Chhun,” Nhean said, adding that in the past commune election in 2012, many Kandorl residents had voted for the CNRP.
He said that since his wife was incarcerated, he has had to support his family, including five children, on his own.
Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said via email that the government’s decision to target individuals for their links to the CNRP shows that it is failing to respect citizens’ fundamental rights.
“In an attempt to suffocate political dissent, many former CNRP activists have been summonsed, arrested, or convicted recently, exemplifying the government’s continued disparagement of its citizens’ political rights,” she said.
She said the recent summons, arrests, and convictions of former opposition supporters coincide with Rainsy’s announcement on September 25 that he would return to the country. Based on the spike in judicial harassment of ex-party members last year after Rainsy stated his intentions to return, she said more rights violations should be expected.
“With each instance of judicial harassment and intimidation of former CNRP activists, Cambodia violates the democratic principles enshrined in both domestic and international human rights law,” Sopheap said.
Soeng Senkaruna, senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said October 16 that he was concerned about the violation of rights based on political preference, noting that the measures against activists and former CNRP members were “politically motivated” rather than a legitimate attempt to enforce the law.
He said that every time an opposing voice, like Rainsy, raises the idea of a campaign for change, the government cracks down.
“We know that it isn’t law enforcement, it is political persecution,” Senkaruna said.
“If the situation continues in this way, we are very worried about the violation of human rights and freedoms of expression of those activists for engaging in political activity,” he said.
As Pich awaits trial, he is holding out hope that the court will drop the charges against him, defending his actions as constitutional and pointing out that he isn’t among the 118 CNRP members who were banned from political activity.
“Now, I am begging the government to stop mistreating me because I am too old,” he said. “Let me get back to my normal life and meditation following Buddhism.
“It is serious pressure for me. Some people have committed crimes like killing and destruction of forests but those people are not penalized, but people like me who were just talking with few people are accused of being criminals.”
Former senior CNRP official Meach Sovannara said the ruling CPP should stop using the courts to persecute and intimidate activists and supporters of democracy, including civil society groups.
“The government should change its nature and stop using the court’s influence to intimidate dissenting groups,” he said.
“They are afraid to lose their power,” Sovannara said.
He called on the government to uphold the Paris Peace Agreement and the Cambodian Constitution’s guarantees for basic human rights and freedom of expression.
“In a democratic country, the people have the right to speak,” he said. “The current government has violated the Constitution and the international convention that they have made, in opposition to democracy.”
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that party members and activists had been charged and placed under court supervision.
“In a democratic society, enforcing the law isn’t restricting rights or freedoms,” he said.
“It is entirely carrying out the procedure of the court, and we have enough evidence.”
Just because a suspect is under court supervision does not mean that he is innocent, he said, explaining that officials must monitor whether the suspect has changed their behavior, and if they have committed any offense that violates the court order.
Meanwhile, the Kampong Cham Provincial Court on October 7 issued a warrant to question 25 ex-CNRP members who had been charged with committing a felony under Article 495 of the Criminal Code.
“Ly Marina, investigating judge, orders the [25 suspects] to be questioned on November 11,” read the warrant.