The newly elected Candlelight Party commune chief in Kampong Thom province was arrested on Tuesday for a robbery allegedly committed 20 years ago, authorities said.
Nhem Sarom, 52, was elected chief of Chamna Loeu commune during the June 5 commune elections, one of only four opposition members to win commune chief positions. The Candlelight Party beat the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in Chamna Loeu with 2285 to 1789 votes.
Yang Sam, Stoung district police chief, confirmed the arrest, saying that it was over a robbery committed in 2002.
“He was arrested on June 21 at 1pm after being called for questioning at the district police station,” he said.
Sun Chanthy, the Candlelight Party’s president in Kampong Thom province, said the arrest of Sarom – who has a long history in the opposition, first as a Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) commune councilor in 2012, and then briefly as a Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) commune chief in 2017 – was politically motivated.
“The accusation against Sarom for robbery in 2002 is purely politically motivated and a form of intimidation,” he said. “If [he] committed robbery in 2002, why not arrest him at the time? He was not on the run.”
During an interview with CamboJA at his home in Kampong Thom earlier this month, Sarom said he was committed to being a model commune chief and serving the people faithfully. However, he said he was worried that being from the opposition party meant his community might be short changed as punishment while he was in a position.
“My commitment is to serve all citizens in accordance with the commune’s decentralization policy, not to commit corruption,” he said. “If people trust us, we will do our best and do it honestly to serve them.”
After being elected commune chief in 2017, he was forced from his position just months later.
Despite the alleged robbery taking place in 2002, the arrest warrant from the Kampong Thom Provincial Court, seen by CamboJA, was only issued ten years later, on June 21, 2012. That was shortly after Sarom became an SRP party councilor.
Am Sam Ath, operation director of rights group Licadho, noted any arrest should have been made back in 2012 when the warrant was first issued and called into question the timing.
“It has been a long time, he should have been arrested when [the arrest warrant was issued] not when he was elected as commune chief of the Candlelight Party,” he said. “This will be seen as political pressure and intimidation.”
According to preliminary results released by the National Election Committee (NEC), of the 17 political parties that took part in the June 5 polls, only the CPP and Candlelight Party won any commune chief positions—with the CPP taking the lion’s share. Final results are expected on June 26.
Last week, the CPP and NEC filed a lawsuit against the Candlelight Party’s vice president Son Chhay after he criticized the commune elections in the media, denying they were free and fair.
The CPP is seeking $1 million in compensation from Mr. Chhay, while the NEC accused him of defamation and is demanding a public apology.
Mr. Chhay, who is now living in Australia, told CamboJA that he would return to Cambodia next week to challenge the legal action.
“I have nothing to worry about. If both the CPP and NEC want to sue me, it’s up to them,” he said. (Additional reporting by Try Thaney)