A court in Cambodia's Tbong Khmum province on Friday charged three activists with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) with plotting a coup, citing their support for the planned return of the party's acting president Sam Rainsy from self-imposed exile next month.

The Tbong Khmum Provincial Court charged Yem Vanneth, the president of the CNRP's youth wing in the province; Sim Seangleng, a member of the CNRP's Tbong Khmum working group who is also known as Veng; and Mean La, the head of the commune council in Po'nhea Krek district's Daun Tey commune; under Article 453 of Cambodia's Criminal Code.

Authorities have stepped up harassment of CNRP activists and supporters since August, when the party announced Sam Rainsy's plan to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, calling on supporters and members of Cambodia's armed forces to join him in a restoration of democracy in the Southeast Asian nation.

Police have made multiple arrests in recent weeks, bringing to at least 30 the number of CNRP activists detained since the beginning of the year and at least 158 the number subjected to interrogation over the same period, and prompting calls from Western governments and rights groups for an end to the mistreatment. At least five activists are currently in hiding amid the crackdown.

The charges brought on Friday are the same as the accusations facing many of the activists arrested in recent weeks, and authorities have warned that anyone involved in supporting Sam Rainsy or a plot to overthrow the government will face five to 10 years in prison if found guilty in a court of law.

Yem Vanneth's father, Um Yeth, told RFA's Khmer Service on Friday that the charges against his daughter are very unjust and expressed frustration over what he termed mistreatment at the hands of the authorities.

My daughter is innocent�she is just an ordinary citizen, he said. I call on the international community to look into this case of injustice.

Am Sam Ath, the deputy director of Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA that the recent arrests suggest the government is targeting members of the opposition.

Opposition members have been deprived of their rights and freedom due to the constant persecution against them by the authorities, he said.

Cambodia should respect human rights and rule of law, rather than leveling politically motivated charges against the opposition.

In addition to charging activists and other supporters of the CNRP, court officials last week charged eight senior officials from the CNRP, including Sam Rainsy, as well as his wife, Tioulong Saumura, with attempting to stage a coup in connection with the party chief's plan to return to the country.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court also charged the nine with intention to commit armed rebellion as part of Sam Rainsy's stated intention to lead peaceful protests in Cambodia when he returns on Nov. 9, to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the country's independence from France.

Also among those named in the charges were CNRP deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang, and former lawmakers Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, Men Sothavarin, Long Ry, and Tok Vanchan.

According to media reports, posters bearing photos of the same senior CNRP officials have been hung at crossings between the Thai-Malaysian border and the Thai-Cambodia frontier, with instructions to arrest them on sight, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said last week that it had issued arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy to all 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile since late 2015 to avoid what he says are politically motivated convictions and arrest warrants, and Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to arrest him as soon as he sets foot inside Cambodia.

In his absence, authorities arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha on charges of treason in September 2017 and the Supreme Court banned the opposition party two months later for its role in the alleged plot to topple the government.

The moves against the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country's July 2018 general election. Hun Sen has been in power since 1985.

Response to charges

The CNRP responded to the charges against its leadership late on Thursday with a statement calling them baseless and dangerous and rejecting accusations that they intend to lead an armed rebellion as having no relation neither to reality nor to legality.

The party called Kem Sokha's arrest and the dissolution of the CNRP a constitutional coup and demanded that Cambodia revert to a liberal democracy and cease to be a captured state that serves the interest and the benefits of Hun Sen's regime and the privileged few.

That is why we from the CNRP leadership have decided to return home from exile, the statement said, adding that no one should be prosecuted for welcoming or joining our return.

We are going back because we believe in the power of dialogue. Our only means to achieve change is the power of word and conviction. We have no arms. Our political mission is peace and reconciliation, prosperity and dignity, unity and strength!

The CNRP went further to say that its call to the security forces in one asking that they remain loyal to the defense of the constitution and borders of Cambodia, and an appeal never to shoot at any Cambodian.

We believe in constitutionalism. We don't believe in coups, the statement said.

Chin Malin, a spokesperson for Cambodia's Ministry of Justice, told RFA that any means used to plan and attempt the overthrow of a legitimate government can be considered a coup.

This does not necessarily mean that the perpetrators need to have weapons or military forces under their control, he said.

To overthrow a government, they may simply incite the people to rebel against the government, use money to lure military personnel into turning their weapons against the government, or encourage the armed forces to disobey the government. These are the legal elements of the crime.

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