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Families of jailed CNRP members vow to secure their release

Local authorities stop family members of jailed CNRP members as they attempt to march from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to the French Embassy on July 31. Panha Chhorpoan

Now in their seventh week of peaceful protests outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, family members of jailed former Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) members have said they will not rest until their relatives who were arrested for their alleged involvement in a plot to topple the government are released.

About 20 people have rallied in front of the municipal courthouse every Fridayfor nearly two months, calling on the court to drop all charges against the 17former opposition members who were apprehended since January.

The family members, who have submitted petitions at several embassies and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said Prampi Makara district authorities and security guards have repeatedly interfered with their demonstrations. The group has appealed to the embassies of the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Japan and the OHCHR to ask that they intervene to help free the imprisoned former CNRP members, who they say are innocent.

The 17 arrests stem from the government’s allegations that the former party chief was planning to stage a coup when he announced plans last year to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile in France.

The most recent four arrests were seemingly made in reaction to a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he responded to comments made by CNRP former acting president Sam Rainsy in May. 

In a video posted online, the exiled opposition leader had called on the Cambodian people to “get rid of this miserable regime through a campaign of passive resistance by refusing to repay their debts to the banks controlled by the Hun family on grounds of force majeure through the Covid-19 economic crisis.”

The prime minister then issued a warning on June 1 against anyone who uses Facebook to post in favor of the CNRP, which was dissolved in 2017.

“The police are looking for them and making arrests,” he said, adding, “I send the message: If you [Sam Rainsy] are still ordering people in the country [to destroy the nation], I will arrest those people.”

The recent arrests of former party members Sun Thon, Peat Mab, and Heng Chansothy, and Kak Kompea, were made on May 31 and June 1, Sam Sokong, the defense lawyer for the four said at the time.

Standing outside the French Embassy on July 31, where the group was checking in on a petition they had previously submitted, Thon’s wife Seng Chanthorn, 48, called on local civil society groups and the international community to help her jailed husband.

“I hope that the French embassy, as a country that upholds democracy, will push the court to release my husband and the other detainees,” she said.

“Since the dissolution of the CNRP, he [Thon] has never engaged in any political activities,” she said. “Because I live with him, I know his activities very well.”

“The accusation is just a pretext because what Sam Rainsy said … it didn’t involve [Thon],” she said.

Chanthorn said that although every rally the family members had held was peaceful, authorities and security guards always intervened, impeding their freedom of expression.

“They have torn down our banner, scuffled with us and ordered us to be silent,” she said. “It is a restriction of our freedoms.”

“We become victims if we do not protest for ourselves,” she added. “Who will do it for us? So we will continue to protest until the [court] releases these people.”

Prom Chantha, 43, the wife of Kompea, on July 31 said she was disappointed that officials had frequently forcibly blocked the group’s non-violent demonstrations.

“It is unjust and is unsuitable that authorities have used violence against us while we are holding a peaceful protest,” she said, adding that she hopes the international community would intervene.

“We are going to protest every week on Friday even though there is little hope that they will release my husband,” she said.

Chansothy’s 18-year-old daughter Heng Madollar said at the protest that she is also committed to protesting peacefully for as long as her father is behind bars.

She said Chansothy was arrested June 5 while picking up her brother from a primary school in Pur Senchey district’s Trapaing Krasaing commune in Phnom Penh.

“We have thought of clashing with authorities but we do not because we are protesting for my father,” Madollar said. “It is very unjust for my father and the other parents.”

According to defense lawyer Sokong, the arrests were related to what the government said was an attempt by the CNRP to stage a coup last year. In September, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged nine senior officials from the CNRP, including Rainsy, in connection with the alleged coup plot that stemmed from the party chief’s plan to return to the country from self-imposed exile in November.

The municipal court has charged the imprisoned former party members with plotting, the existence of incitement,and incitement to commit a felony under articles 453, 494 and 495, carrying a prison term of up to 10 years. All besides one who was released on bail due to illness are being held in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison.

Chad Roedemeier, a spokesman for the US Embassy, said via email on July 30 that embassyofficials had met with protesters, and emphasized that the freedoms of expression and the press, peaceful association, an active civil society, and tolerance of dissenting views are vital to any democracy.

“The United States does not support any particular group or individual, but rather supports the Cambodian people’s constitutional right to democracy and fundamental freedoms,” Roedemeier said. 

He added that the US has provided nearly $3 billion to Cambodia over the past three decades, including assistance to strengthen democratic institutions.

“We are deeply concerned by arrests, harassment, and intimidation of the political opposition,” Roedemeier said. “We call on all stakeholders to undertake a peaceful process of dialogue and national reconciliation.”

The Japanese Embassy declined to comment, saying the person in charge of the situation is out of office. The French and British embassies and the UN’s OHCHR did not respond to requests for comment.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said July 31 that because the courts are independent, no one can put pressure on the judges’ decisions.  

“They [the family of CNRP members] should find legal assistance and follow the court’s procedures to prove that they are innocent,” he said.

“They have been charged with criminal offenses because they had committed political actions under orders from their boss [Rainsy] that violated the law in Cambodia,” Malin said.

Former senior CNRP official Meach Sovannara said the arrests of former party members and suppression of the protests by their families showed that Cambodia had failed to respect human rights and democracy.

“It is very unjust that the country claims to be upholding democracy but its people can’t exercise their freedom of speech,” he said.

He said  that after the dissolution of the CNRP, the government has gradually increased its restrictions of freedom of expression and cracked down on dissent.

“I have seen that Cambodia has been seeking revenge over politics rather than finding a resolution with each other,” Sovannara said, when about his opinion those detainees were charged to link connected with Sam Rainsy’s plot.