The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged three activists and former officials of the opposition CNRP with incitement to disturb social security for their involvement in protests supporting union leader Rong Chhun, who was also charged with incitement this month, according to a police official.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet confirmed August 8 that the three had been charged for planning to disturb social order by demanding Rong Chhun’s release from jail.
“They were placed in prison yesterday,” he said. “They have all been charged with incitement to disturb social security and order.”
Chhour Pheng, Chum Puthy, Uk Sam Aun and Chhin Sovann were arrested in the evening on August 4 when they went to Wat Than to monitor the situation of eight monks from Battambang province who had been banned from joining an August 5 march calling for the release of prominent union leader Chhun. Sam Aun and Sovann were later released due to a lack of evidence.
Sar Kanitha, who is also an activist with the now-dissolved CNRP, was arrested on August 7.
“The woman was arrested on Friday in the evening following an arrest warrant,” Thet said, adding that she had been apprehended in Takhmao City.
“She had attended a meeting and planned to disturb social security” by protesting to support Chhun, the police chief said, without giving further details on the meeting.
Thet said the arrests were made because the group had been organizing protests in support of Chhun under orders from their boss, who he did not name.
“They have received orders from their bosses from the outside,” he said, referring to former CNRP party president Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in France.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Kuch Kimlong declined to comment. Y Ring, chief secretariat of the court, could not be reached.
National Police Spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said August 7 that police had arrested Pheng, Puthy, Sam Aun and Sovann for their involvement in recent demonstrations. Upon their release, Sovann and Sam Aun had signed a contract promising that they would not join future demonstrations to support the jailed union leader, he said.
“The demonstrations to demand the release of Rong Chhun are putting pressure on the court, which is unlawful,” Kim Khoeun said, referring to a statement from the Justice Ministry on August 3 warning protesters that it is illegal to attempt to coerce judicial authorities.
He noted that Phnom Penh City Hall had also issued a statement saying the group, which has been protesting in support of Chhun since he was charged on August 1, did not have permission to demonstrate.
“If they do not ask for permission, it is not called a right or freedom, but it is anarchy,” he said.
Sam Sokong, defense lawyer for Pheng and Puthy, confirmed that his clients were arrested when they went to monitor a meeting between Phnom Penh’s chief monk and eight monks who had traveled from Battambang to attend the march in support of the outspoken union leader.
“I think that the arrest is not correct because there are no elements that are consistent with incitement to commit an offence because they have just monitored the situation and procedures of the officials dealing with those monks,” Sokong said.
Puthy is an activist for the now-dissolved CNRP in Svay Rieng province and Pheng is a supporter of the party who lives in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district, according to Sokong.
Chhour Pheng’s wife, Dok Kimtieng, 42, on Friday called on the government to release her husband.
She said that Pheng’s detention was unjust.
“I think that it is unjust because he didn’t join any activity,” she said, adding that her husband had merely visited Wat Than with former Dangkao commune chief and CNRP member Uk Sam Aun to check on the situation involving the eight Battambang monks who were meeting with Phnom Penh’s chief monk.
“I beg the government to release my husband unconditionally because he did nothing wrong,” Kimtieng said.
Chhun, who heads the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was arrested after a Radio Free Asia broadcast aired on July 31 in which he says that Vietnamese soldiers have placed border posts 500 meters into Cambodian territory and expelled villagers from their land. He was charged with incitement to disturb social security and placed in pre-trial detention on August 1.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho, said August 7 that he was concerned over the ongoing abuse of fundamental freedoms, noting that stopping demonstrations violates Cambodians’ right to exercise their opinion which is guaranteed in the Constitution.
“It is already intimidation,” he said, referring to the statement by the Justice Ministry and warnings from Phnom Penh authorities that demonstrators would face “legal action” if they continued.
“It is a threat to other people now that they have arrested some who participated” in the protests, Sam Ath said.
“We are concerned that if [restrictions of citizens’s rights] continue to happen, it will seriously affect the human rights situation in Cambodia,” he added.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin on August 7 defended police’s actions, saying the use of maintaining public order by arresting opposition activists was necessary and not a restriction of freedoms.
“Please, civil society groups, look deeply into whether there is something behind, like plotting or assignments by the organization to carry out these activities,” he said.
Also on August 7, about 20 protesters demonstrated outside the United States and French embassies where they submitted a petition asking the countries to intervene to help secure the release of Chhun.
Last month, a coalition of local and international NGOs released a report detailing specific times April 2019 and March 2020 in which the government restricted and violated fundamental freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, noting a growing crackdown on political dissent and the silencing of free speech.
The government’s human rights committee refuted the findings, saying the report is biased and was generated to support a political agenda.