Four former members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been arrested since May 31 for their alleged involvement in a plot to overthrow the government last year, bringing the total number to 14 such arrests since January.
The most recent arrests were seemingly in reaction to a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he responded to comments made by the CNRP’s former acting president, Sam Rainsy, last month. In a speech 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.”
On June 1, Hun Sen issued a warning to those who use Facebook to post in favor of the opposition CNRP. “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.”
As a result, Sun Thon, Peat Mab, and Heng Chansothy were arrested on June 1, and Kak Kompea was arrested May 31, according to their defense lawyer, Sam Sokong. The most recent arrests were carried out last week in Phnom Penh, and Kampong Thom and Siem Reap provinces.
He said that 14 former members of the CNRP, which was dissolved in 2017, have been arrested since January, with one released on bail due to illness.
“Some of them were arrested at home and others were arrested on the street, all without knowing what they had done wrong,” Sokong said. He added that 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.
“I think it is an injustice, and that they were arrested for politically motivated reasons,” he added.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Y Rin confirmed on June 8 that Investigating Judge Koy Sao had sent the four activists to pretrial detention at Prey Sar Prison.
“They were charged with plotting, the existence of incitement, and incitement to commit a felony according to articles 453, 494 and 495,” he said.
Article 453 of the Criminal Code says plotting consists of a resolution agreed upon by two or more persons to commit an attack where the resolution was put into effect by material actions. It carries a prison term of between 5 and 10 years.
Interior Ministry spokesman General Khieu Sopheak confirmed this week that police had made the four recent arrests due to the former CNRP members’ alleged coup collusion with Rainsy.
“They have been arrested for committing the activity of attempting to topple the government, and they received that order from a person overseas,” Sopheak said, referring to Rainsy.
“If those people hadn’t done anything, police officials wouldn’t have arrested them,” he said when asked how the four had plotted against the government.
Despite calls for the release of the ex-CNRP officials, National Police Chief General Neth Savoeun last week foreshadowed further potential arrests when he ordered all police departments and provincial governments to continue monitoring on Facebook to “target ill-intentioned, hostile groups”.
National Police spokesman Lieutenant General Chhay Kim Khoeun said that his officers would comply.
“He [Savoeun] told us to monitor Facebook and social media pages that have criticized the government … and [we] have to come out and respond and deal with that information, and research people who have ill-intentions toward the government,” he said.
Political analysts and former opposition party members have urged the government to release the 13 jailed CNRP members in a bid to improve Cambodia’s human rights record or risk repercussions from Western countries. Pressure has been rising on Cambodia to improve its human rights ahead of the upcoming partial suspension of the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) tariff-free trade scheme, which is due to take effect in August.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said that rising political tensions and increased arrests could cause more cuts to the EBA agreement.
“Politicians should consider the nation’s interests and keep a positive stance in terms of relations with Western countries,” he said. “Arresting activists from the former opposition party does not reflect well on the political situation in Cambodia.”
Former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrath said this week that the political situation was ever worsening as authorities continue to persecute former members of the opposition, noting that the relevant authorities should have evidence to back up their arrests, instead of hastily responding to a speech by the prime minister.
“It is affecting people’s freedom of expression and intimidating them,” he said. “When the prime minister chanted [to arrest opposition members], the local authorities immediately took legal action against them.
He said that since the dissolution of the main former opposition party CNRP in 2017, he had noticed a gradual restriction of political freedoms leading up to the recent arrests.
“This is not good for our society, when politically motivated arrests are on the rise,” Chanrath added.
However, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said this week that the right to freedom of expression is unrelated to any arrest warrants issued by the court.
“When an offense has been committed, we have to face the law,” Malin said.
“You must be held responsible if your freedom of expression violates another person’s rights. It does not infringe your freedom of expression, but it is carrying out the [correct] legal action,” he added.
He added that political freedom does not mean that citizens or politicians are allowed to violate the law or impact public order.
“The royal government will take legal action against those who have posted fake news or information to incite others to cause chaos in society,” he said.
Meanwhile, family members of the jailed CNRP officials maintained their innocence.
Chansothy’s wife, Long Narin, 57, on June 8 called on the court to immediately release her husband.
“It is an injustice for my husband, and he did nothing wrong,” she said.
She said that Chansothy was arrested on June 5 while picking up his son from a primary school in Pur Senchey district’s Trapaing Krasaing commune in Phnom Penh.
Eyewitnesses reported seeing seven men wearing civilian clothes arriving to arrest him, she said.
“I think the arrest was linked to political issues because he was a former member [of the CNRP’s] executive working group for Pur Senchey district,” Narin said.
Kao Seyha, 53, the brother-in-law of another one of the arrested former CNRP members, Sun Thon, said that his in-law was arrested on June 1 at his home in Phum Thmey village in Kampong Thom province.
“We do not know the reason he was arrested because when police arrested him they didn’t show an arrest warrant,” he said.
Seyha added that police officials claimed that Thon had been charged with aiding the CNRP’s alleged coup plot last year.