The 16-year-old son of a former CNRP official has been charged on Friday with incitement and insulting public officials while chatting on the Telegram messaging app.
This is the third recent police or apparent vigilante act against Kak Sovann Chhay, who had been arrested last year after entering the former headquarters of the opposition party and, in late April was attacked by unknown men who hit him in the head with a brick, fracturing his skull. Civil society groups have decried the latest criminal case as yet another act of secret surveillance from the CPP-dominated government in its bid to tighten control of political discourse in Cambodia, even that happening in private communications.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet confirmed the Thursday arrest of Sovann Chhay, who is the son of Kak Komphea, but did not comment further. The elder Komphea is a former member of the Phnom Penh council for CNRP and one of more than 130 defendants charged with plotting and incitement crimes related to the failed 2019 return of exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. The ruling CPP, which has found Rainsy and other exiled politicians guilty of crimes in absentia, has labeled Rainsy’s much-heralded attempt as a move to topple the government.
Plang Sophal, deputy prosecutor and spokesman of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said prosecutors had interrogated and charged Sovann Chhay with the two speech crimes and are now sending the case to an investigating judge for further questioning.
Prum Chantha, the mother of Sovann Chhay, is one of a group of spouses and other family members of imprisoned CNRP officials known as the Friday Women for their acts of protest on that day each week since 2020 to demand the release of their loved ones. Chantha told CamboJA that the arrest of her son, who she said has autism, is “politically motivated” to intimidate those who participate in such protest activities.
She said that around 20 police officials, including some wearing civilian clothes, had raided her house to arrest her son at about 8 p.m. Thursday night in the Boeng Tumpong 2 commune of the capital’s Meanchey district. Officers didn’t show any arrest warrant, Chantha said.
“There is someone in group Telegram who insulted [Sovann Chhay’s] father as a betrayer, or a rebel, and my son insulted them back,” she said. “They have accused him of incitement but how has he incited?”
“It is an injustice to my family that now they have arrested my son while my husband has remained behind bars,” Chantha continued. “It is a violation of his rights that they come to arrest him at night.”
She called on national and international civil society groups to intervene to aid in the release of her son, who she maintained is innocent.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said the surveillance of private conversations and social media violate privacy rights.
“We do not know the meaning of those messages but if [Sovann Chhay] himself has argued with somebody and chatted through Telegram, I don’t think it’s incitement,” Sam Ath said. “[The arrest] is threatening and intimidating to his family because his mother always acted in every Friday Women protest.”
There were about 10 women protesting Friday at the British embassy in Phnom Penh but they were assaulted by security guards and refused from holding a banner as they submitted a petition seeking intervention from UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab to help their imprisoned relatives.
Seng Chanthan, whose husband Sun Thun is currently imprisoned for political crimes, joined the Friday protest and said she hopes Raab and the UK will hear their pleas.
“[The UK] is a superpower country which upholds human rights and democracy, so they will intervene to the government to release those prisoners of conscience,” she said.