Court in Cambodia Sentences Seven Opposition Activists to Jail For ‘Treason’

A court in Cambodia sentenced seven activists with the country’s banned opposition party—including a new mother—to between five and seven years in prison Tuesday for “treason,” as the party’s acting president vowed to return home from self-imposed exile, despite an aborted earlier attempt. Sam Sokong, the lawyer for the activists from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said the Tboung Khmum Provincial Court handed five of the seven sentences for seven years, while the other two—who had defected to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—were given five-year suspended sentences. The seven were tried under Article 453 of Cambodia’s Penal Code for posting comments on Facebook between 2018 and 2019 in support of acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy’s plan to return to the country from self-imposed exile in Paris, where he has lived since August 2015 to avoid a string of what he says are politically motivated charges and convictions. Of the five sentenced to seven years, one—Kong Sam An—was arrested on Sept. 6, while the other four were convicted in absentia, he said. Three had fled overseas and one is in hiding inside Cambodia. Following Tuesday’s proceedings, during which around 100 family members of the defendants protested in front of the court, Sam Sokong dismissed the verdict as “unjust” because his clients “committed no crimes” and vowed to appeal the decision. “We cannot accept the verdict,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, noting that the judge convicted one activist who had just given birth. “The woman is weak—she just gave birth to a baby and she is poor.” RFA was unable to reach court spokesman Hak Seaklim for comment in Tuesday. One of the convicted activists, Mean La, who is in hiding, told RFA that the charges against her are “groundless.” She said she was detained in late 2019 when she was two months pregnant, but later released due to an intervention by Prime Minister Hun Sen, at which point she fled the country. “It is very unjust for the court to sentence me to seven years in jail because I was never involved in treason,” she said. “This is purely politically motivated and not at all about implementation of the law.” Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesperson for local rights group Adhoc, suggested that the verdict had been cooked up to further persecute the CNRP amidst a government campaign targeting the party. “No one can be involved in politics due to this current political tension,” he said, urging all political leaders to negotiate so that all parties will respect human rights and democratic principles. New vow to return Tuesday’s verdict comes as Sam Rainsy this week unveiled new plans to return to Cambodia, without providing a date or any specific details. Sam Rainsy’s earlier plan to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile last November was thwarted when Cambodian authorities barred him from entry. Another CNRP activist convicted on Tuesday who is living abroad, Yem Vannet, told RFA that she would not be cowed by her sentence and plans to join Sam Rainsy to “rescue the country’s democracy” if he returns. “The court conviction is small thing—it is common that we get accused of treason,” she said. “I will go to Cambodia with Sam Rainsy to restore democracy in the country.” Analyst Meas Nee told RFA that Sam Rainsy’s announcement is “just another political strategy” and “unrealistic,” as he has yet to provide details of his plan. “Sam Rainsy’s announcement is only a strategy to put pressure on Cambodia’s government,” he said. Meas Nee warned that such an announcement will lead to more detentions of CNRP members, but will benefit the opposition party because it will result in criticism or possible sanctions over political arrests. On Aug. 25, CNRP activist and former Kampot province commune councilor Pen Mom was sentenced to five years in prison for treason by the Kampot Provincial Court for supporting Sam Rainsy’s planned return to Cambodia in 2019. She was among more than 100 party members arrested for mobilizing to welcome Sam Rainsy back home, 76 of whom were later released on bail. Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after leader Kem Sokha’s arrest, for its role in opposition leader’s alleged scheme. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election. Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia Arrests Second Rapper in Days Over Politically Charged Rhymes

Authorities in Cambodia have arrested a second rapper on charges of “incitement” in days, a court official in the country’s Siem Reap province said Tuesday, after he released songs suggesting that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s lack of leadership had led to economic decline. Long Puthera, who penned the track “Wipe Your Tears and Continue Your Journey, Khmer Eyes,” was arrested “late last week” and jailed on charges of “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code, Siem Reap Provincial Court spokesperson Chhuon Sopanha told RFA’s Khmer Service. “The judge ordered him detained on charges of incitement,” he said. “The accused has the right to an attorney.” The rapper had regularly posted songs on his YouTube page under the name Thxera-Kampuchea and had thousands of followers. Long Puthera’s acquaintances told RFA that they had been unable to contact his family members since his arrest, as they live in a different province. The young musician is also friends with fellow rapper Kea Sokun, known for his song “Khmer Land,” which touched a political third rail by criticizing the Cambodian government’s handling of its border dispute with Vietnam. Kea Sokun was arrested Sept. 4 in Siem Reap province and also charged with incitement after authorities booked his wedding photography business for a pre-wedding photo shoot and took him into custody when he arrived, his brother Chheang Chhat told RFA last week. Chan Chamroeun, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA Tuesday that his organization is investigating the two cases and working to provide lawyers to defend the pair of rappers. He said that the two young men had simply sang songs reflective of current Cambodian social issues and had not breached any laws. “The authorities should have allowed for their freedom of expression—this freedom is important because it helps the government understand the concerns of the public,” he said. “The authorities should allow for constructive criticism so that the government can identify loopholes in the system and fix them.” Wave of arrests Last week, amid an ongoing wave of arrests of voices critical of Hun Sen’s leadership, Rhona Smith, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, wrote in a Facebook post that “the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are protected by international human rights norms and standards as well as by the Cambodian Constitution.” She urged authorities to ensure that those arrested are promptly tried and that their due process rights be fully respected. On Friday the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said it had documented the arrest of 24 human rights campaigners since popular labor leader Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was taken into custody July 31, including eight in September alone. While 13 were released after pledging to refrain from further rights activities, 12 remain in detention—most of whom face charges of “incitement to commit felony,” including three environmental activists. The wave of arrests come three years after opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha’s September 2017 arrest over an alleged plot to overthrow the government with the help of Washington. Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned his party in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme. The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by 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 parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election. Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia Arrests Another Activist For ‘Incitement’ as UN, Rights Group Slam Government Repression

Cambodia has arrested yet another rights activist for “incitement” as the United Nations and a major human rights group lambasted the country’s government Friday for repressing voices critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership. Muong Sopheak, the brother of Khmer Student Intelligent League Association president Muong Sony, was arrested on Thursday following a court-ordered warrant and jailed on charges of “incitement to provoke social unrest,” Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sokseiha told RFA’s Khmer Service. San Sokseiha did not provide any details about what Muong Sopheak, 24, had done to prompt the arrest and charges. “This is a normal procedure—we executed the court’s warrant, arrested him, and sent him to the court right away,” he said. Muong Sopheak had taken part in a protest organized by youth activists on Sept. 6 at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park and in petitioning the U.S. Embassy to intervene in the cases of other activists who are jailed on similar charges. Koet Saray, a Buddhist monk, and Mean Prommony, vice-president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, were arrested that day, apparently in retaliation for planning a demonstration to call for the release of the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions Rong Chhun. Rong Chhun was arrested on July 31 and charged with incitement after publicly claiming that Cambodia’s government had ceded land to neighboring Vietnam amid a redrawing of their shared border. Muong Sony told RFA that his brother had been arrested without prior notice and that police had yet to officially inform the family. He said Muong Sopheak had broken no law and called his arrest “yet another persecution” against activists who raise concerns over social issues and demand justice, as well as a form of “intimidation” against youth campaigners. “The arrest shows that the government is concerned, but it should not be because Cambodia is a democratic country,” he said. “Youths are advocating because they are also nationalists, they are working for the country. The government should have more patience and understanding and encourage them instead.” Ny Sokha of local rights group Adhoc said Muong Sopheak had acted in line with the constitution and urged the authorities to stop arbitrarily arresting people who should be provided with the freedom to speak out against injustice. “We have reiterated our appeals asking the government to consider releasing and dropping charges against all activists recently arrested and resume seeking solutions to resolve national issues such as land disputes, poverty, and social justice,” he said. Government repression Muong Sopheak’s arrest came as the U.N.’s human rights agency issued a scathing indictment of the Cambodian government’s repression of its citizens, calling on authorities to release those arrested for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association in the country. In a statement on Friday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said it had documented the arrest of 24 human rights campaigners since Rong Chhun was taken into custody, including eight in September alone. While 13 were released after pledging to refrain from further rights activities, 12 remain in detention—most of whom face charges of “incitement to commit felony,” including three environmental activists. Several people have reported receiving threatening phone calls, including death threats, if they don’t end their activism, the statement said, while numerous rights campaigners are in hiding for fear of arrest. The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had documented “unnecessary and excessive use of force” by security forces against protesters on multiple occasions, as well as intimidation of those taking part in peaceful demonstrations. It also noted an ongoing crackdown against civil society organizations that has seen two groups shut down for “incitement” and unannounced visits to other by officials under the pretext of checking their registration. “The current situation marks a deepening of the Government’s intolerance to dissent and repression of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” the statement said, noting that mostly human rights organizations, environmentalists, and human rights defenders have been targeted. “We call on the Government to immediately and unconditionally release those detained for their exercise of these rights, and to bring an end to the intimidation of civil society actors. We call on the security forces to stop resorting to unnecessary and excessive force and intimidation against those engaged in peaceful protests.” Call for UN resolution Also on Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling on Cambodian authorities to “immediately drop baseless incitement charges against 14 recently detained youth and environmental activists and unconditionally release them,” referring to a group arrested since August that included 11 calling for Rong Chhun’s release. “The Cambodian authorities’ latest wave of arrests of activists shows a highly disturbing disregard not only for freedom of expression and assembly, but for land rights and the environment,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director. “The authorities should stop misusing penal code provisions on incitement to prevent peaceful critics from making public demands of the government.” HRW noted that Cambodia is currently detaining more than 50 people on politically motivated grounds, including activists from the banned opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), youth, environmental activists, and journalists reporting for independent media outlets. The group demanded that the government “free all those wrongfully detained” and called on Hun Sen to end what it said amounts to a “de facto ban on critical protests” in the capital. “These recurring abuses make it all the more important that the U.N. Human Rights Council adopt a resolution that increases U.N. monitoring and reporting on human rights in Cambodia by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights,” Robertson said. This month marked three years since the government ratcheted up a campaign of repression against the CNRP, arresting Kem Sokha in September and banning his party in November that year for its supposed role in an alleged plot to overthrow Hun Sen with U.S. help. 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 parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election. Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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