(Bangkok) - Cambodian authorities for the first time invoked a discredited 2017 Supreme Court ruling to arrest a former opposition official in Kampot province, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 17, the authorities detained Nuth Pich, a former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) provincial leader, for allegedly disobeying the court decision that dissolved the party.
The Cambodian authorities should drop all politically motivated charges against Pich, 63, and unconditionally release him.
"Cambodian authorities went into contortions to find charges to bring against Nuth Pich, who merely exercised his basic rights to free speech and association," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This is just the latest baseless act of harassment against a former opposition party member."
In April and May, Pich helped organize gatherings of former CNRP elected officials and activists for meals of Khmer noodles, which the authorities treated as resisting the Supreme Court decision. On May 17, the Kampot provincial court issued an arrest warrant against Pich, and he promptly went into hiding.
In early August, he came out of hiding and returned home, mistakenly believing it was safe to do so. The authorities arrested him and the court charged him with discrediting judicial decisions (article 523 of Cambodia's penal code), incitement to commit felony decisions (article 494), and the rarely used charge of attacks that endanger the institutions of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory (article 451), a charge that is punishable by 15 to 30 years in prison.
In its charges against Pich, the court indicated it was acting on the basis of the November 16, 2017 Supreme Court decision that dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 party leaders from formal participation in political activity for five years. As a result of the ruling, elections were held on July 29, 2018 without a major opposition party. The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won all the seats in the National Assembly, effectively making Cambodia a one-party state.
Since the start of 2019, the authorities have summoned over 147 CNRP members and supporters around the country for questioning. On May 7, the police arrested another former Kampot provincial CNRP official, Nget Khouch. The authorities held Khouch for two nights during which time they gained access to his phone to view group messages exchanged among former CNRP members. The authorities alleged that some of the messages, in which Pich was purportedly involved, expressed support for the acting CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, to return to Cambodia. They released Khouch after he agreed under duress to join the ruling Cambodian People's Party.
The leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, remains under highly restrictive house arrest in conditions comparable to detention. He has spent a year in pretrial detention in jail and almost one year under restrictive house arrest, but there is no indication that the authorities will send Sokha's case to trial or release him.
Concerned governments should call for the immediate and unconditional release of former opposition members and activists arbitrarily detained, Human Rights Watch said.
"The Cambodian government's crackdown on opposition parties did not end with the Supreme Court's decision to dissolve the CNRP, but has only gotten worse," Robertson said. "The appalling silence of the EU, US, and other foreign donors whenever a former CNRP leader is arrested should end now."
Source: Human Rights Watch