A Cambodian court is taking legal action against five top former opposition party lawmakers and officials for continuing to conduct political activities outside the country even though their party has been dissolved by the government.
The Ministry of Interior filed a lawsuit with the court on Thursday against Sam Rainsy, former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and an elected member of parliament, lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, CNRP deputy presidents Eng Chhai Eang and Mu Sochua, and Kem Monovithya, senior public relations officer and daughter of jailed former CNRP leader Kem Sokha.
Ly Sophanna, deputy prosecutor of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, told local media that judicial officials are proceeding with the case.
He said the five CNRP officials have been involved in activities outside of Cambodia as part of the new Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) founded by Sam Rainsy, who has lived in exile since 2015 to avoid convictions widely seen as politically motivated.
The movement, which is undertaking an action plan with the objective of ensuring that the general elections scheduled for July are free and fair, keeps alive the defunct CNRP without fear of government reprisal.
The Supreme Court issued a ruling in November, dissolving the CNRP for its part in plotting a “coup” against the government.
The decision banned 118 CNRP lawmakers and senior officials from politics for five years, eliminating Prime Minister Hun Sen’s main competition ahead of general elections scheduled for this July. More than 5,000 remaining elected CNRP commune chiefs and district counselors were also removed from their positions.
During a visit to southwestern Cambodia’s Takeo province on Thursday, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said the CNRM would be short-lived because it has no local support and was created for the sole purpose of toppling the government of Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985.
Cambodian lawyer Pheng Heng told RFA’s Khmer Service that the government has no authority to disband the CNRM.
“The Constitution of Cambodia guarantees freedom of expression to all Cambodians,” he said. “All CNRP officials, therefore, enjoy this right. On top of that, their activities outside of Cambodia do not fall within the jurisdiction of Cambodian laws. The genuine advocacy work of the CNRM for justice is legitimate and allowed by the constitution. They cannot be considered outlaws or rebels.”
Free and fair?
Meanwhile, civil society groups are concerned that the national elections will not be free and fair because of the political persecution of the opposition party, NGOs, and independent media.
Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), told RFA on Thursday that his organization will not decide until April whether to participate in national election monitoring.
The two issues bearing on the decision are the minimum standard of free and fair elections and international sanctions on electoral assistance to the NICFEC, he said.
“We … need to look into the required legal standards of free and fair elections first before we decide to take part,” he said.
The organization, which used to be funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development through the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the European Union, faces a budget squeeze because of big international donors’ sanctions on Cambodia, he said.
In September 2017, Cambodia’s government expelled NDI for allegedly operating without a valid memorandum of understanding and failing to comply with the country’s tax laws.
Sam Kuntheamy said he is now waiting to hear from Japan about possible funding for his organization because the Asian country has expressed a commitment to providing technical assistance to Cambodia’s electoral body.
Despite Japan's pledge to continue the technical assistance, the government has consistently raised concerns about the upcoming Cambodian vote.
“It is vital to conduct the general election this July in a way that appropriately reflects the will of the people, said Kazuyuki Nakane, Japan’s foreign affairs minister, during a meeting with his Cambodian counterpart in Phnom Penh on Jan. 29.
Nakane urged the government to engage in talks with domestic political figures and create an environment where the rights of all politicians and civic groups are respected and their activities are secured.
The Cambodian side assured the Japanese official that the government would “adhere to the multiparty liberal democratic system and implement the national election this July as scheduled in a free, fair and stable manner.”
Yoeung Sotheara, former legal adviser for election watchdog Comfrel, said he has no faith in the Cambodian government's words.
He told RFA on Thursday that though there are several political parties in Cambodia, they are too small to compete with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
On top of that, the absence of the CNRP calls into question the legitimacy of the upcoming national election, he said.
“Having many political parties does not mean that Cambodia has adopted a multiparty principle,” Yoeung Sotheara said. “Several political parties exist only as facade. Those parties are nothing but a window dressing. They do not add value to the promotion of democracy value unless they are as strong as the dissolved CNRP.”
Commune counselor fears for safety
Meanwhile in the northwestern city of Battambang, Long Nim, an elected CNRP commune counselor for Bavel district, said on Thursday that he fears for his personal safety after receiving a summons from the deputy chief of the police station in Khnach Rormeas commune.
The police want to question him on Friday about participating in humanitarian assistance work on Feb. 11 when he helped some senior citizens in the commune’s Roung Ampil village, said Long Nim.
Police officer Ao Thol has informed him that the activity is illegal, he added.
Heng Sayhong, the Battambang coordinator of the domestic rights group Adhoc, said that humanitarian activities are not illegal and that the summons is another attempt by authorities to restrict people’s rights and freedom.
Since the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, some lawmakers and other officials have fled Cambodia out of fear for their safety, while several members of commune councils have taken refuge in Thailand and other countries. Others who have remained in the country have been subjected to harassment and bullying by authorities.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.