Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged two Candlelight Party officials and placed them in pretrial detention for alleged forgery, use of forged documents and forgery of public documents involved in the election process.
The two are Chhay Chenda, chairperson of the Women’s Movement and party treasurer in Chroy Changva district, and Khem Chanvannak, acting chairman of the party’s Phnom Penh division and second deputy chief of Sangkat Kakap II.
On Monday, authorities arrested Chanvannak at his home in Paprak Khang Tboung Village, Kakab I commune in Pur Sen Chey district, following a warrant issued by a prosecutor.
However, relatives of the accused alleged that the authorities failed to produce the document, only saying, “you know what you did”, when they arrived at the house.
A statement was issued by the Candlelight Party on the same day condemning Chanvannak’s arrest by the authorities for failing to show proof. The next day, Phnom Penh authorities issued a letter against Chanvannak.
On Tuesday evening, Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Y Rin said the investigating judge charged and remanded Chenda, where she is being held at the Correctional Center Two, for “falsifying public documents” under Article 629 of the Criminal Code. The alleged incident took place in March 2022 in Khtor village, Prek Leap commune, Chroy Changva district.
Chanvannak was charged under Articles 626, 627 and 628 of the Criminal Code for “forgery and the use of forged documents” in November 2023 in Phnom Penh.
Y Rin declined to elaborate what the offenses were about, noting that they are being investigated.
According to Articles 627 and 628 of the Criminal Code, forgery and the use of forged documents are punishable by one to three years in prison and a fine of two million to six million riel. Article 629 stipulates that forgery of public documents can result in a jail term of five to 10 years.
The Candlelight Party considers Chanvannak’s arrest as a form of intimidation with the intention of demoralizing people from taking part in political events, particularly by creating a tense atmosphere before the senate election.
The opposition party has demanded the immediate and unconditional release of Chanvannak and to stop future arrests, intimidation and all other forms of persecution against their leaders and activists. This is to ensure that the run-up to the 2024 senate, Phnom Penh, provincial, municipal, district and commune council elections is free, fair and just.
In response to Chanvannak’s arrest, the Phnom Penh Municipal Police issued a press statement stating that there was “sufficient evidence” from the alleged victims.
Its spokesperson said the arrest was in accordance with an arrest warrant issued by deputy prosecutor Seng Heang and not linked to threats or harassment against political activists.
According to the statement, Chanvannak allegedly falsified the fingerprints and signatures of three citizens in order to register a reserve candidate from the party’s Phsar Thmey 3 commune area, which took place on November 7, 2023.
Asked about the date, NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea claimed that he was unsure whether the registration of the reserve candidate referred to the previous parliamentary election or “something else”.
Meanwhile, Teav Vannol, president of the Candlelight Party, said they do not know exactly what Chanvannak had done wrong. He said if the authorities have evidence to charge Chanvannak, the party will hire a lawyer to defend him in court.
“I understand that this case is to create a tense atmosphere before the senate election,” he added.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesperson Sam Vichheka said Chanvannak’s arrest follows a “victim’s complaint”. He too alleged that Chanvannak made use of people’s names, fingerprints and signatures to register reserve candidates without their permission.
Vichheka shared that three people, who were victims of the alleged forgery, filed a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Police on January 11, 2024, against two people.
Recounting what happened that day, Chanvannak’s daughter, Chanvannyrachana, said about 20 police officers, some in uniform and others in civilian clothes, came to their house while her father was resting.
They arrested him without providing any details, only mentioning that there was an arrest warrant. They also dismantled some equipment inside the house.
Until Tuesday, the family had no clear information about Chanvannak’s offense. “When [we] asked about the warrant, they [authority] said ‘you know what you have done’ before taking my father away.”
Declining to share her full name as she feared her own safety, Chenda’s daughter, Boramey, views her mother’s arrest as a “serious threat” to opposition officials to not run in the upcoming municipal, provincial, districts and commune council elections.
She alleged that some of the Candlelight Party members had “sold their soul” (by joining the ruling party) during the 2022 commune council elections in Prek Leap. As a result, there was no representation by the party.
Boramey said the Candlelight party has faced challenges including elimination of partners or other opposition parties from contesting or voting. In that, the types of reasons given include failure to abide by the National Election Committee’s regulations, and incomplete candidate details.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said so far, no one has filed a complaint with them regarding the registration of reserve candidates under the Candlelight Party in Phsar Thmey 3 commune.
In the meantime, Ros Sotha, executive director of Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC), has called for case observation, fearing that the charges and the handling of the case against the opposition officials were unfair.
“I think civil society organizations should monitor this [case] closely to see if the allegations are appropriate or are politically motivated, and if the allegations are fair,” he said.
According to a report from Candlelight Party secretary-general Ly Sothearayuth, 10 members have been jailed in the last two years, while others have fled overseas. The arrest of Chanvannak and Chenda in Phnom Penh is the latest this year.