The wife of a newly-elected Candlelight Party commune chief in Kampong Thom who was arrested over a robbery alleged to have taken place 20 years ago, said Wednesday that there had never been a crime, only an argument over an unpaid debt.
Nhem Sarom, one of only four opposition party commune chiefs elected on June 5th, was arrested Tuesday in a case rights groups are calling politically motivated. His wife Khat Sakheang, 48, told CamboJA, no crime had been committed.
She said the plaintiff in the case had owed her family money but was unable to pay, so Mr. Sarom confiscated the debtor’s electric generator to offset the debt.
“He owed my relatives money and refused to pay, so my relatives asked my husband to go with them to seize property from the debtor’s home,” she said. “However, my husband did not bring it home and it was kept at the commune hall.”
Ms. Sakheang told CamboJA that the property owner then filed a complaint accusing her husband of trespassing and stealing. The case was settled out of court when her husband agreed to pay $ 1,000 in damages to the plaintiff and asked that the lawsuit be dropped, she added.
“We thought the case was completed because we already paid him. We did not know it continues until now,” she said, adding that in the 20 years since her husband had never seen a court warrant until he was arrested this week.
“I am very worried about my husband,” she said.
So Sovannareth, spokesman for Kampong Thom Provincial Court, denied the case was politically motivated and told CamboJA that four defendants, including Nhem Sarom, had already been sentenced in absentia to five years in prison on January 21, 2014.
“Let’s not be confused over the case. It is not politically motivated, it is the execution of a court order in a robbery case,” he said.
Sovannareth declined to answer the question of why Nhim Sarom was not arrested and imprisoned immediately after the court sentenced him, saying that this was beyond his jurisdiction. He also refused to say why the arrest was made based on a 2012 arrest warrant.
He likewise declined to comment when asked why the other three defendants had not now been arrested along with Mr. Sarom.
Am Sam Ath, operation director of rights group Licadho, said if Mr. Sarom had already been convicted in 2014, then his arrest now based on a 2012 warrant didn’t follow correct legal procedure.
“There is no valid reason for this arrest. It is a purely political threat, but [they] used the legal process to cover it up,” he said.
Despite the alleged robbery taking place in 2002, the arrest warrant from the Kampong Thom Provincial Court was only issued ten years later, on June 21, 2012. That was shortly after Sarom became a Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) councilor.
Mr. Sarom, who has a long history in the opposition, was first an SRP commune councilor in 2012, and then briefly a Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) commune chief in 2017.
Noth Sophim, an elected councilor for Chamna Loeu commune from the Candlelight Party, echoed Am Sam Ath’s view that the arrest this week was political intimidation and persecution of the opposition.
“However we continue to struggle as much as we can,” he said.