Families Demand Cambodia Court Drop Charges, Free Detained Opposition Activists

Around 20 family members of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activists detained in Prey Sar Prison on charges of “incitement to commit a felony” held a rare protest in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Friday demanding their immediate and unconditional release.

The protesters, who held banners and signed a petition calling on the court to drop charges against the activists, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the imprisonment of their fathers and husbands is “unjust and unacceptable.”

Sok Bolyma, one of those who gathered Friday, said her husband Khem Pheana—a former commune councilor in Phnom Penh—is innocent of the crimes authorities have charged him with.

“He should be released—he was the breadwinner of the family,” she said, noting that the protest had been organized by family members and not the CNRP, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017 over its involvement in an alleged plot to topple the government.

“We lost our jobs and owe money to the bank, so his arrest is a big burden on us.” she said.

Sok Bolyma told RFA she had visited her husband in jail on June 15 and expressed concern about medical conditions he suffers from, including hypertension and the flu. Khem Pheana was arrested on April 2 and has been held in detention since.

The protesters left the court Friday without delivering their petition to an official, but then gathered and submitted the petition to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), calling for the agency’s intervention. They said they plan to petition foreign embassies next week.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin told RFA that the family members’ cases are under the purview of the court and that no one can interfere in the legal process.

“They should protest against their leaders overseas, demanding that they help them with their legal defense,” he said, referring to the many CNRP brass who are living in self-imposed exile to avoid charges and convictions they said are politically motivated.

“Those people incited [the activists] to commit crimes and they must be held responsible before the law.”

‘Politically motivated’ cases

Ny Sokha, a senior official at Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said authorities’ targeting of the CNRP that has seen at least 16 former officials and activists detained since the coronavirus outbreak reached the country in January is “politically motivated, rather than about enforcing the law.”

The family members have the right to protest under constitutional laws protecting freedom of expression, he added.

“We urge the government, and especially the court, to reconsider detaining opposition party activists,” he said.

Ny Sokha said existing cases should be resolved through political negotiations rather than through the courts.

The move to ban the CNRP was part 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.

Last week, a group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) urged Cambodia’s government to stop arresting those critical of its policies, including opposition activists, saying the campaign is a violation of their rights and will lead to a “societal split” that will be ruinous for the nation.

In a joint statement, 30 local groups—including Adhoc, Licadho, and Comfrel—said the government and the CNRP should “return to the negotiating table to resolve their political issues for the sake of society, and to respect civil and political rights and freedom of expression,”

 

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