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Cambodia arrests leader of opposition political party who was in hiding

Authorities in Cambodia on Thursday arrested the president of a small Cambodian political party who had been on the run since last week after being charged with forging documents to compete in local elections in June.

RFA reported April 18 that Seam Pluk, president of the National Heart Party, had gone into hiding after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest and ordered him to appear in court on April 25. His lawyer, Sam Sok Kong, said that he intended to appear but that the court date did not give sufficient time to prepare to fight the charges.

Choung Chou Ngy, another lawyer representing Seam Pluk, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the arrest was not legal because the warrant expired two days ago.

“It is wrong for the police to implement an expired warrant. The court should take action against the police,” he said.

Choung Chou Ngy also sought to cast doubt over the allegation that Seam Pluk forged registration documents so that his party could participate in elections.

“The Ministry of Interior did a unilateral investigation without the National Heart Party’s participation. Was it an accurate audit? It is a secret,” he said.

Among the 4,000 thumbprints collected for party registration, the Ministry of Interior only identified 200 that may have been forged, he said. Even if there are forgeries, the party has enough support to register, assuming the remaining prints are legitimate, Choung Chou Ngy said.

The political party registration process should not lead to arrests, Kang Savang, a monitor with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said.  

“I haven’t seen the ministry file a complaint over thumbprint issues. This is new to me. I am concerned they are using the court to deal with the case. It will affect people’s right to participate in the electoral process,” Kang Savang said.

“I think authorities shouldn’t use the court to resolve this issue. The ministry should have just refused to register the party,” he said.

The Ministry of Interior moved to prosecute Seam Pluk after they accused him of receiving funds from exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to participate in the election, an accusation Seam Pluk has denied.

Sam Rainsy is one of two prominent leaders of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 in a move that allowed Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win all 125 seats in Parliament in a July 2018 election.

Sam Rainsy, 72, has lived in exile in France since 2015. He was sentenced in absentia last year to 25 years for what supporters say was a politically motivated charge of attempting to overthrow the government.

Choung Chou Ngy said he will meet Seam Pluk April 29 in prison to discuss an appeal against his detention.

RFA reported last week that another small opposition party, the Candlelight Party, believed that Sam Pluk has been targeted because of his previous support for Candlelight.

The Candlelight party has been gaining steam over the past year and its leaders believe it can challenge the CPP in the upcoming elections.

After the National Heart Party’s registration was denied, Candlelight party leadership encouraged Heart party supporters to join Candlelight.

The Candlelight Party, formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Nation party, was founded in 1995. It merged with other opposition forces to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012.

Freedoms monitor

Seam Pluk’s arrest comes as three NGOs released a report that listed hundreds of instances of rights abuses in the country, which Hun Sen has led for decades.

“Despite the government’s duty to respect, protect and promote the freedoms of association, expression and assembly, the report records more than 300 restrictions and violations of fundamental freedoms in every province,” the report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc), and the Solidarity Center said.

The report’s findings show that “fundamental freedom is being restricted while opposition parties are being abused by the state, authorities and third-party actors,” Hun Seanghak, who coordinated the report, told RFA.

But a spokesperson for a government-aligned rights group dismissed the report’s conclusions.

“When individuals break the law, authorities must implement the law. Is that human rights abuse? In Cambodia people enjoy their freedom,” Kata Orn, spokesperson for the pro-government Cambodia Human Rights Committee, told RFA.

He said the report was designed to please donors and doesn’t reflect the truth about democracy and freedom in Cambodia.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.