Around 20 former Cambodia National Rescue Party members and activists have been arrested or “educated” and released in the run up to the planned return of former party vice president Mu Sochua.
Mu Sochua and some of her colleagues had planned to return to Cambodia on January 4, in time for an unprecedented trial against more than 130 former CNRP members and supporters for alleged incitement and plotting charges. Sochua and around 40 others will be on trial on January 14, with remaining defendants expected in court on March 4.
However, in the last two weeks the dissolved party has reported that around 20 of its former members had been detained by the police for allegedly supporting the planned return of their colleagues, with 10 of them facing criminal charges.
National Police Spokesperson Chhay Kimkhoeun confirmed that 20 people had been detained but refused to divulge details of the arrests.
“We have already planned to implement the arrest warrants for those rebel group leaders,” Kimkhoeun said.
Sam Sokong, a lawyer who routinely represents CNRP clients, said that 20 former members, activists and supporters of the party had been detained by police in Phnom Penh and Battambang, Tbong Khmum, and Kandal provinces, for the alleged crime of supporting the return of Sochua and others.
“There are 10 people who were charged with plotting, incitement to disturb social security and insulting the King, and have been placed into pretrial detention,” Sokong said.
He said the arrests affected the rights of his clients to free expression and assembly, rights enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution.
The Cambodian government had similarly arrested, and later released, more than 100 former CNRP members for allegedly supporting the return of former party president Sam Rainsy in 2019. The planned return was unsuccessful after the government imposed a travel ban on Sam Rainsy and cancelled passports of the party’s senior leaders.
According to information posted by the CNRP online, former party activist Kong Mas was one of the people arrested and sent to pretrial detention. Mas was previously arrested and convicted in 2019 for “incitement” and “insulting the government” for posting a critique of the administration’s policies on social media. He was released from prison in August 2020, after serving an 18-month sentence.
Kong Mas’s wife, Kol Sath, confirmed he was arrested by Phnom Penh police officials on December 31 last week. She added that his arrest was politically motivated and questioned why it was a crime to support the return of Mu Sochua.
“Yes, I think they arrested him in relation to that issue” she said. “It is an injustice because every citizen has rights to freedom of expression,” Sat said.
Sochua posted on her Facebook that the airline she was using had cancelled the flight on account of COVID-19 disruptions, and would now return with other former CNRP members on January 17, missing the commencement of the trial.
Sochua said in an email on Monday that she was committed to returning on January 17.
“There are obstacles that are beyond my control, including COVID-19. But if I must change flights, I’ll change flights. I’ll do everything possible to return. As I say clearly; it is my constitutional right,” she said.
Justice Ministry Spokesperson Chin Malin rejected allegations that the 10 people were charged because they were linked to Sochua’s planned return.
“The [police] have implemented the law against those who have committed serious offenses,” he said. “The legal action does not relate to Mu Sochua’s planned return.”
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group ADHOC, said the continued targeting of political activists would only exacerbate the ongoing conflict between the CNRP and Cambodian People’ Party government.
“It’s politically motivated rather than law enforcement because we have seen it is the targeting of a group of political activists,” he said.