Cambodian opposition party activists injured in physical assaults during the last year are living in fear, with their attackers still unidentified by police and authorities sometimes blaming the victims themselves for the attacks, sources in Cambodia say.
Human rights and civil society groups point to a lack of political will on the part of authorities to hold perpetrators to account, however.
More than 30 Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activists and their relatives and supporters have reported being beaten by anonymous attackers, mostly by motorbike-riding assailants targeting their heads. The attackers have used batons and bricks, and also their own vehicles, against the victims.
One of those attacked, a CNRP activist named Sin Khonn who was assaulted and badly injured on May 12 this year, said that authorities have so far failed to show any results of an investigation following up on his report of the incident immediately after it happened.
The assault was carried out by four men on two motorbikes who beat Sin Khonn at the Doeurm Sral market near Wat Chas in the capital Phnom Penh, leaving him with a laceration over his right eyebrow and several fractured fingers on his left hand.
Evidence of the attack was recorded in security camera footage that clearly showed the men who assaulted him and the motorbikes they used to chase him down, but nothing has been done yet to pursue justice in his case, he said.
“I still live in fear because my attackers have not been apprehended or brought to justice. I feel very insecure,” Sin Khonn said.
“On June 7 and 15, several strangers were watching me, and sometimes they even followed me to where I live,” he said, adding “I now refrain from going out anywhere, especially at night.”
“I really believe that these acts of violence launched against us are intended to discourage young people and opposition activists from openly expressing themselves,” he said.
Tes Saroeun, another CNRP activist and victim of an assault in Phnom Penh, said he doesn’t look for justice from the Cambodian police and courts, as the attacks are clearly part of a campaign of systematic political persecution.
Attacked twice by unknown individuals, once in December 2020 and a second time at the end of January, while attending court hearings for other CNRP activists, Tes Saroeun said he is now “terrified and traumatized.”
“Whenever I go anywhere now, I look to the left and right and am very careful. I believe that the attacks against me were politically motivated, because I am a politician and a political party activist,” he said.
A pattern to attacks
Police investigations into the violence are often hindered by victims’ refusal to fully cooperate with authorities, though, said Sok Seiha—a spokesperson for the Phnom Penh Municipal Police—adding that victims sometimes don’t even file a formal complaint.
“Our main challenge is that victims will appear to withhold some part of the truth,” he said. “They don’t tell us everything.”
“For example, they might have had some personal fights or arguments with other people or even with family members that lead to the violence. And then they describe the attacks as politically motivated acts,” he said.
“This is always a challenge to our investigations,” he said.
There are patterns to these attacks, though, and they happen again and again, said Am Sam Ath, deputy director for human rights for the Cambodian NGO Licadho. No perpetrators have ever been arrested, and no cases have been brought to court, he said.
“Although the authorities claim that they are carrying out investigations, their activities appear to be less dynamic than they are in the less politically connected cases, where the investigations and the identification of the perpetrators appear to happen much more quickly,” he said.
“The authorities need to change the way they handle these investigations if they want to regain the public’s trust,” he said.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Police detained Prak Seiha and his wife for around 12 hours at the time.
The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGO’s and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s 2018 general election.
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