Authorities in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, sent three opposition activists to Prey Sar Prison on Wednesday for pre-trial detention on charges of “incitement to commit a crime” after taking part in a protest, prompting human rights groups to decry the move as a restriction on freedom of expression.
Hong An and San Srey Neat, Phnom Penh-based activists with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and Pai Ren, a party activist in Oddar Meanchey province, had been arrested on Dec. 28 and Dec. 29 while taking part in rallies calling for the release of other opposition members detained and jailed on similar charges.
Hong An's son, Heng Chhay, told RFA’s Khmer Service that his mother’s arrest was “unjust and unacceptable.” He said Hong An is innocent and had done nothing wrong.
“I cannot accept [the arrest] because ‘incitement’ is not right,” he said. “I demand that my mother be released because she did not commit any illegal act. She only expressed her opinion.”
Wednesday’s detentions came a day after police in the capital arrested eight more CNRP activists and sent them for questioning, before requiring them to sign a document saying they would refrain from taking part in future protests and sending them back to their homes.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesperson San Sok Seiha told RFA that two of the activists are from Oddar Meanchey province and the other six from Phnom Penh. He said the eight had joined a protest without requesting permission from the authorities, so police brought them in to “educate them” and pledge to end their activities.
“When there is a gathering, they need to make a request with names [of participants] so it is easier for us to monitor it,” he said.
“[Without such a request], if there is a problem, [the police] don’t know where they are from … They created a problem, so we questioned them and educated them.”
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for human rights for local NGO Licadho, said such actions severely curb the right to freedom of expression in Cambodia. He said that while the activists hadn’t asked permission, they have the right to peacefully protest and not be subjected to violence, adding that the arrests signaled a “departure from the path of democracy and are likely to be criticized by the international community.”
Also Wednesday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court indefinitely postponed a trial of 15 human rights and opposition activists charged with “incitement to cause serious social chaos” after questioning only one defendant—CNRP activist Chhour Pheng—about his recent protest in front of the court.
Following the hearing, the defense lawyers for all 15 defendants demanded that the court summon the police for questioning because Chhour Pheng said authorities had forced him to apply his thumbprint as a signature acknowledging a report about his activities. The judge immediately adjourned the hearing and announced that the court will notify the defense when the next session will be held, without providing a date.
Ten of the defendants were arrested in August and September in connection with protests calling for the release of Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions and a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council.
Scores of Cambodian civil society groups have condemned his arrest, demanding that the government release him and drop charges of “incitement” he faces over his criticism of the country’s handling of a border dispute with Vietnam. He faces two years in prison if convicted.
The 10 include CNRP activists Chum Puthy, Chhour Pheng, and Kong Sam An; members of the Khmer Thavarak youth group Choeun Daravy, Tha Lavy, and Eng Malai; and members of the Active Citizens for Justice youth group Mean Prom Mony and Venerable Keut Saray.
The five other defendants — who are not in pre-trial detention because they are abroad or their whereabouts are unknown — include outspoken CNRP activists Seng Bunrong, Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, and Kong Saphea; and CNRP supporter and Khmer-Australian politician Hong Lim. The first four were included in a mass summons issued against the CNRP in November.
Defense attorney Sam Sokong told RFA that the court should simply drop the case and release his clients, who have said they had no intention to cause social unrest.
“It was a protest for the release Rong Chhun—they like Rong Chhun,” he said. “If you look at the facts, it is not a crime. What [the court] should do is to release them.”
As the hearing took place on Wednesday, security forces from Phnom Penh’s 7 Makara district stood outside the court, warning supporters and relatives of the defendants not to gather or shout slogans.
Family members of the Khmer Thavarak activists said they were refused permission to attend the trial or give food to their relatives.
Choeun Daravy's mother, Thach Thida, said that she and around 10 other relatives hid in the parking lot in front of the court and did not dare protest because they wanted to hear the results of the trial. She said she was disappointed by the continued detention of her child.
Ros Sotha, a senior adviser to the Cambodian Human Rights Defenders Alliance (CHRAC), urged court officials to drop charges against the 15 and release Rong Chhun. He condemned the accusations against the youth protesters as a curbing of their freedom of expression and said the authorities must refrain from using violence against peaceful protesters, which he deemed a “serious human rights violation.”
“Sometimes we see the authorities pushing women until they are slammed to the pavement,” he said. “It is an inappropriate act, a cheap act ... Leaders must avoid this kind of thing.”
Cambodia's exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy talks to reporters after meeting legislators at the Parliament House in Kuala Lumpur, Nov. 12, 2019.
Also on Wednesday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Sam Rainsy, activist monk Venerable Buth Buntenh, and three other opposition members to prison on Wednesday for incitement—delivering a verdict for trial proceedings held on Dec. 21.
Sam Rainsy received four years in two separate cases: “Incitement to commit a crime” for a post he made to Facebook that earned him a two-year term, a fine of 4 million riels (U.S. $1,000), and compensatory damages of 2 billion riels (U.S. $497,500); and “incitement to cause serious social chaos,” resulting in another two-year term and another 4 million-riel fine.
Venerable Buth Buntenh received a 20-month prison term and a 4 million-riel fine for “incitement to cause serious social chaos,” while the court sentenced the three CNRP activists to nearly two years each for the same charge.
Sam Sokong, who is representing Sam Rainsy, told RFA that Judge Ros Piseth’s decision was “too harsh,” and said he plans to discuss the case further with his client.
But Sam Rainsy told RFA Wednesday that he has no plans to appeal the conviction, which he said “was a political verdict.”
“We don’t need to play with the court because the court is following the orders of country’s leaders. It has nothing to do with justice,” he said.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Two months later, the Supreme Court banned the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Sam Rainsy tried to return from self-imposed exile on Nov. 9, 2019, to lead nonviolent protests against Hun Sen, urging Cambodian migrant workers abroad and members of the military to join him. However, his plan to enter Cambodia from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.
In addition to the four-year sentence Sam Rainsy received on Wednesday, the acting CNRP president also faces at least 18 years in jail for a variety of convictions, including defamation, conspiracy to forge public documents, inciting armed forces to disobey orders, and insulting King Norodom Sihamoni.
The next case in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s docket is one against 60 CNRP activists on charges of “incitement” and “conspiracy,” which is scheduled for Jan. 14.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.