A Cambodian court on Friday ordered an opposition party activist detained after he returned from exile in Thailand, sending him to Prey Sar Prison in the capital Phnom Penh to face charges of conspiracy and incitement, Cambodian sources say.
Tum Bunthorn, a former commune councilor for the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested on Wednesday, a month after returning to his home from Thailand in order to live with his family, his wife Sieng Leng told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Sieng Leng said she has not been yet been told of formal charges filed by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against her husband, but called his arrest politically motivated and unjust.
“I am asking the court to release him so that he can regain his freedom. He needs to feed his children and family,” she said.
Tum Tunthorn was a member of a CNRP musical group that had performed songs criticizing the government of long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, and was jailed for two months in 2019 on charges of incitement amid a wave of arrests of other opposition party activists and politicians.
Fearing further harassment by authorities, he had fled to Thailand following his release.
Speaking to reporters on the Telegram messaging service, Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Plang Sophal said that Tum Bunthorn had been arrested based on a warrant issued after his sentencing in absentia on Dec. 30 to a prison term of two years and eight months for actions “seriously affecting social security.”
Tum Bunthorn’s detention came as the Phnom Penh court questioned a land-rights activist, Lak Kien Ving, who was arrested this week after being summoned to appear at the court, according to his wife, Orn Chantho.
Armed police stormed her house after Phnom Penh deputy prosecutor Mut Dara issued a warrant on Wednesday requesting Lak Kien Ving to come to the court to be questioned over his role in a land encroachment case, she said.
The warrant gave Lak Kien Ving, a resident of Prey Nop district in Sihanoukville, a month in which to appear before the court, but authorities acted quickly to take him into custody, violating the warrant’s own provisions, she said.
Lak Kien Ving’s arrest was not carried out according to law, because the court itself had given him 30 days in which to appear, said Am Sam Ath, deputy director of monitoring at the Cambodia-based rights group Licadho.
Arrests of activists and opposition party members often surge after exchanges of rhetoric between Hun Sen and acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who now lives in exile in Paris, Am Sam Ath said.
“In my own observations, I have seen that even when arrest warrants are issued, the authorities often won’t make arrests except in times of political tension. So these arrests have more to do with politics than the law,” he said.
More than 90 political opposition figures and social and environmental activists have been arrested in Cambodia in recent years on charges of “incitement and conspiracy,” sources say.
Also on Friday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court dropped ten arrest warrants issued against former CNRP youth workers now living in South Korea after one youth leader, Yim Sinorn, wrote to Hun Sen to ask his intervention in the proceedings against them.
The warrants had been issued on charges of conspiracy and incitement over the announced return, later abandoned, to Cambodia by CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy from exile in 2019. On receiving Yim Sinorn’s appeal, Hun Sen forwarded his letter to Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice and the court withdrew the warrants.
Separately, New York-based Human Rights Watch expressed concern over what it called the “repeated harassment” by Cambodian authorities of independent journalist Youn Cheav, who faces a lawsuit filed by Defense Minister Tea Banh because of his reporting on issues of corruption, land grabs, and threats by authorities in southwest Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.
”The persecution of local online reporter Youn Cheav shows how the Cambodian government is systematically silencing the few independent journalists and media outlets left in the country,” said HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson in a statement Thursday.
“Using the excuse of fighting so-called ‘fake news’ and disinformation, the government is resorting to criminal prosecutions in Cambodia’s politicized court system to target independent journalists based on bogus allegations,” Robertson said.
US lawmakers call for sanctions
Cambodian activists and opposition figures this week applauded the bipartisan passage by U.S. lawmakers on Tuesday of legislation calling for sanctions on Cambodian officials found responsible for suppressing political opposition in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country.
Titled the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2021, H.R.4686 would bar entry to the United States by senior Cambodian officials deemed responsible by the U.S. president for having “directly and substantially undermined democracy in Cambodia.”
The bill if signed into law by the U.S. president would also restrict financial transactions and freeze assets held in the United States by targeted Cambodian officials.
Speaking to RFA, Voeun Veasna—a forest activist who fled Cambodia and now lives in Thailand—said that the bill if made law will benefit victims of government persecution in Cambodia and force Hun Sen to engage in talks with the CNRP to improve human rights and democracy.
“As an activist, I urge Hun Sen to stop being stubborn and return to negotiations for the sake of peace in the nation,” he said.
Another CNRP activist, Leng Sotheary, said though that the proposed law will only embarrass Hun Sen on the international stage. “And when Hun Sen gets angry, he arrests even more activists and puts them in jail,” she said.
Chhim Phalvorun, spokesman for Cambodia’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) said however that the bill is being used by the United States as a device to undermine what he called Cambodia’s position of neutrality in the competition between the U.S. and China, Cambodia’s powerful northern neighbor and supporter.
“The U.S. legislation is just the title of a song," he said. "In fact, it is only a political tool for the U.S. to use against China, using Cambodia as a pretext."
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after arresting its president Kem Sokha over an alleged plot to overthrow the government. Scores of supporters of the group have since been incarcerated, awaiting a tortuous legal process made slower by COVID-19 restrictions.
The move came amid a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the country’s political opposition, independent media, and NGOs that allowed the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 election and drew U.S. sanctions and the suspension of trade privileges with the European Union.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.