Three Candlelight Party activists were each sentenced to two years in prison and fined five million riel ($1,231) on March 24 by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on charges of forgery linked to the registration of the now-defunct Cambodia National Heart Party (CNHP) in 2021.
“It’s another new threat to the Candlelight Party as national elections approach,” said the Candlelight Party in a statement posted to its Facebook page last Friday. “[We] call on authority to release the three Candlelight Party’s activists in order for them to join political activities according to the constitution to ensure the July national election be free and fair.”
A fourth defendant, CNHP co-founder Seam Pluk, was also fined the same amount and sentenced to two years and six months in prison. He has been in pre-trial detention since April 2022.
Another nine defendants were also convicted on forgery charges under Articles 626, 627, 628 and 353 of the Criminal Code but are not currently in prison, according to their lawyer Ket Thy. He said he was not sure whether they would be imprisoned. At least five of these defendants were Candlelight activists, according to Candlelight Party’s secretary general Ly Sothearayuth.
The Ministry of Interior had rejected the registration of the CNHP in November 2021 and alleged that more than 200 thumbprints in the party’s 4,700 supporters’ thumbprints had been “duplicated, unidentifiable or were inconsistent with identity documents” according to human rights NGO Licadho. The Supreme Court affirmed the Ministry of Interior’s decision in December 2021.
The three newly imprisoned Candlelight leaders, Touch Thung, Khoeun Virath and Nou Sitheary, were arrested on the morning before the court’s verdict last Friday was announced, said their lawyer Ket Thy.
“It [arrest] was not made based on legal procedure, the arrest was according to the court’s verdict, but they [Thung, Virath and Sitheary] were arrested before the verdict was issued,” said Thy, who also represented the ten other defendants in the case.
Thung is Candlelight’s Kampong Cham provincial chief, Virath is president of the party’s National Youth Wing Movement and Svay Rieng deputy provincial party chief and Nou Sitheary, a retired teacher, is the deputy of the party’s National Women’s Movement. The three had previously been affiliated with the Sam Rainsy Party. Thung and Virath were lawmaker candidates for their provinces, Sothearayuth said.
“They have a key role in the party, and they are active in mobilizing youth and networking, so let the public judge if the action [the arrest] is the threat,” Sothearayuth said. “Just less than four months, the election will arrive but the arrest of the Candlelight’s officials happened.”
The ruling CPP’s spokesperson Sok Eysan dismissed Candlelight’s statement and said that authorities were following the law. He added that all officials or members of any party will be punished if they break the law.
“No matter which party they are from, they cannot use a party as a shield to protect them from illegal activities and they cannot use the Candlelight Party to protect them as well,” Eysan said. “One or two people cannot make the election atmosphere gloomy.”
Top Candlelight leaders have been arrested in the months leading up to the national elections. Co-Vice President Thach Setha was arrested in January for allegedly issuing bad checks. Another co-Vice President, Son Chhay, was found guilty of defamation against the CPP and National Election Committee in October 2022 and ordered to pay 4 billion riel ($1 million).
Am Sam Ath, operating director of human rights NGO Licadho, said that the recent conviction of ex-opposition leader Kem Sokha, sentenced to 27 years in home confinement, had already drawn criticism from the public and international community.
The EU parliament passed a resolution on March 16 urging the Cambodian government to release political prisoners and activists, while ceasing intimidation of opposition party members. The resolution warned that targeted sanctions and full withdrawal of the “Everything But Arms” trade subsidies would occur if the political environment did not improve.
“We don’t let Cambodia’s sovereignty be exchanged for aid,” Ministry of Justice spokesperson and vice president of the Cambodia Human Rights Committee Chin Malin told CamboJA following the resolution.
Two former CNRP activists and vocal Kem Sokha supporters were then detained last week on charges of insulting the King following Facebook posts comparing the relationship between Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni.
According to Licadho there are 67 “prisoners of interest” — including politicians, journalists, human rights, union, and land activists — currently “unjustly detained.” Forty are former CNRP activists or Candlelight officials.
Sam Ath said the latest arrests of Candlelight leaders should spur further questions about Cambodia’s commitment to upholding democratic elections.
“Even if it was an old case, the arrest of three who are currently senior officials of the Candlelight Party will draw more criticism and impact the election atmosphere,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Phon Sotthyroth)