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Cambodian officials move against opposition activists ahead of June elections

Cambodian authorities moved this month to block members of political opposition groups from challenging the country’s ruling party in local elections set for June, arresting some on contested charges and disqualifying others from running, Cambodian sources say.

Barred now from participating in the vote are more than 100 candidates from the Candlelight Party, formerly called the Sam Rainsy Party, which merged with other groups in 2012 to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, allowing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen to win all 125 seats in Parliament in a July 2018 election.

Other opposition activists have meanwhile been arrested, denied release from jail in time to contest the polls, or injured or killed in apparently targeted physical attacks, sources said.

One Candlelight Party activist and his son were arrested in western Cambodia’s Pursat province on Thursday and sent to prison to await trial on charges of illegal fishing, with other party members calling the charges a ploy to restrict their political activities.

Hem Chhil, 35, a commune council candidate for the Kandieng district’s Syva commune, and Pim Dara, 15, were arrested while pumping water from a pond behind their house and catching fish to cook for a holiday celebration, provincial party leader Phan Bunsoth told RFA on Thursday.

“Around five local village guards and police officers arrested them after saying they had used electricity to stun the fish in order to catch them,” Phan Bunsoth said. A tool used for that purpose had been found around 100 meters from the house, he added.

Hem Chhil had earlier been warned by authorities not to set up a party sign outside his home, said Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha. “It is as if they arrested him to keep him from installing a party sign for others to see. And then they also arrested a 15-year-old minor. This is such an extreme act for the authorities to take,” he said.

“The authorities are doing everything they can in order to win,” agreed Sam Chankear, provincial coordinator the Cambodian rights group ADHOC. “But this will affect the image of the government and the ruling party as a whole,” he added.

Requests for comment from Pursat provincial prosecution office spokesperson Long Cheap, provincial court spokesperson Heng Donin, and provincial Police Commissioner Sarun Chanthy were unanswered on Thursday.

Physical attacks

On Monday, another Candlelight Party activist — Khorn Tun, a commune candidate in Tabaung Khmom province’s Ponhea Krek district — was attacked by unidentified men who threw rocks at her home, while on April 9, Prak Seyha — a party youth leader for Phnom Penh’s Kambol district — was attacked and beaten by a mob.

Also on April 9, a party candidate for Phnom Penh’s Chhbar Ampov district, Choeun Sarim, was killed in traffic while traveling by motorbike from southern Cambodia’s Takeo province to the capital, Phnom Penh.

Speaking to RFA, Choeun Sarim’s wife Satik Srey Touch said her husband’s skull had been crushed by a blow from behind. He had also been threatened and assaulted in the past, she said.

Meanwhile, a Phnom Penh court on Tuesday denied bail to ailing 63-year-old Yok Neang who is on trial for “conspiracy” in connection with a plan to bring Sam Rainsy, acting chief of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, back to Cambodia to challenge CPP rule.

Speaking to RFA, Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian rights group Licadho said that Cambodian courts have no grounds to prosecute Yok Neang and other opposition activists, calling the legal moves against them politically motivated.

“The domestic and international community have seen that these cases are motivated more by politics than by concern for upholding Cambodian law,” he said.

Cambodia is set to hold its fifth commune council election on June 5, with 17 parties competing for a total of 11,622 seats in communes nationwide. Over 9.2 million Cambodians are registered to vote, according to the country’s National Election Committee.

Translated by Samean Yun, Sok Ry Sum, and Sovannarith Keo for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Richard Finney, Joshua Lipes, and Nawar Nemeh.