Cambodia’s government must end a crackdown on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that has seen 15 former officials and activists detained on “fabricated political charges” since the coronavirus outbreak reached the country in January, a rights group said Wednesday.
In addition to the 15 former CNRP officials and activists, another 80 people released on bail face re-arrest at any time, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement, calling on authorities to immediately release 32 prisoners and pretrial detainees—including 23 opposition members—it claimed are being held on politically motivated charges.
“The Cambodian government should stop using the world’s attention on the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to crack down on the opposition,” deputy Asia director at HRW Phil Robertson said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“Concerned governments should make it clear that Prime Minister Hun Sen can’t hide behind a deadly virus to commit rampant rights violations.”
HRW called on governments and donors to publicly demand that Hun Sen release all political prisoners and detainees.
The rights group’s statement follows the arrest of more than 30 people in the first weeks after the pandemic’s outbreak that authorities accused of disseminating “fake news” about its spread in Cambodia—including opposition activists, a child, social media users, and journalists.
Police have detained several opposition activists in May and June based on case files dating back to 2019, HRW noted, while on June 1 Hun Sen threatened to arrest CNRP members who seek to “cause chaos” in connection with a call from the party’s acting chief Sam Rainsy on borrowers to suspend repayment of loans during the outbreak because many had been laid off and could not afford to do so.
Meanwhile, many opposition officials remain in exile out of fear of arrest following the September 2017 arrest of CNRP chief Kem Sokha on charges of plotting to topple the government and the Supreme Court ruling that banned the party two months later for its role in the alleged scheme.
The move to ban the CNRP was part 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.
HRW said it had received credible reports in recent week that Cambodian officials and agents have carried out surveillance of CNRP members living in neighboring countries.
Kem Sokha remains on bail facing a trial on charges the group called “unsubstantiated.” Court proceedings, which began in January, have been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak.
HRW also cited a new Law on Governing the Country in a State of Emergency that Hun Sen’s government pushed through parliament in April authorizing a state of emergency to contain the spread of the coronavirus, saying it “allows further suppression of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.”
The group—like many other rights organizations and observers—expressed concerns over the law’s “wide scope of unfettered martial powers and unqualified restrictions on civil rights” that it said allow for arbitrary government surveillance of private communications and a clampdown on the independent media.
HRW urged governments to “respond publicly and meaningfully” to the ongoing crackdown.
It noted that in mid-February the European Union announced plans to suspend tariff-free access in August to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for developing nations, for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on human rights and the ban on the CNRP.
“The European Union and its member states should factor in the Cambodian government’s renewed crackdown on opposition members when finalizing Cambodia’s partial suspension of trade preferences,” Robertson said.
Responding on Wednesday, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin condemned the HRW statement, saying authorities were “enforcing the law” by arresting the former opposition officials and activists, and suggesting the rights group should advise the CNRP to adhere to the legal system if its members don’t want to face prosecution.
“The CNRP activities were not about exercising freedoms which are guaranteed by national and international law,” he said.
“Their activities were deemed by the authorities and the court to amount to crimes,” he said, noting that “the court also made this clear in the warrants it [issued].”
Forums to resume
Meanwhile, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Wednesday instructed all local authorities across the country to resume public forums halted due to the outbreak, provided they are held with a maximum of 50 participants.
Sum Chankea, Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, welcomed the move saying the forums will help address issues faced by villagers.
However, he expressed concerns that authorities were unlikely to resolve land disputes at the local level, including in his province, where he said at least 200 cases remain pending.
Sum Chankea suggested that local authorities do not wield enough power to tackle the more serious problems facing villagers, saying that they often times “make jokes of the issues because they can’t resolve them.”
Cambodian Farmers Community President Theng Savoeun said that so far the forums have not been used to take action on heated community issues as participants mostly include ruling party supporters and not those of the opposition.
“Before the forums resume, we want the authorities to study the core issues that the people want to be resolved in them,” he said.
“The forums must be open to the public and all parties must be allowed to participate to make for constructive criticism.”
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