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Cambodian opposition activists wait in pretrial detention longer than legal limit

An attorney representing several jailed Cambodian opposition activists said his clients have been in pretrial detention for longer than is legally allowed, as he urged the court to quickly work to resolve their cases.

More than 60 opposition activists, mostly with connections to the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), have been detained for expressing their political rights. Most of them were arrested by the authorities in early 2020. 

Many of the activists have been in pretrial detention longer than the 18-month legal limit, while others are close to reaching that limit, Sam Sokong, who represents nearly 10 detained activists, told RFA’s Khmer Service.     

The legal limit is “six months, and it can be extended twice for six months, so that’s equal to 18 months,” he said.

Sam Sokong’s clients include Kong Mas, who previously served an 18-month sentence that ended in 2020, and Khan Bun Pheng, a former commune chief detained since January 2020. Both are awaiting trial on conspiracy charges.

Sam Sokong’s other clients include activists who were arrested by Thai authorities and repatriated in late 2021: Voeung Samnang and Voeun Vearn, whose alias is Prey Lang Rose Wood, who are both charged with “conspiracy and incitement;” Lahn Thavry, who is charged with “incitement;” and Mech Heang, who is charged with “insulting the government leadership.” 

They have been in detention for more than eight months.

Sam Sokong said that the court told him that their cases had already been sent to a trial judge, but he has yet to receive a court date.

Voeung Samnang’s wife, Srey Teang Chenda, told RFA that the court has already summoned her husband from prison six times since his detention began eight months ago but has not yet taken him to trial.

She said she expects the court to expedite the hearing soon and release her husband to reunite with his family because he is innocent.

“It is unfair because he was not at fault. The authorities arrested him and did not prosecute,” she said. 

“He has done nothing wrong and just keeping him in prison is making me suffer. I have to take care of my family alone and need to visit him at the prison [to bring him food] too,” Sreay Teang Chenda said. 

RFA could not reach Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Ey Rin for comment.

Civil society groups say detaining suspects without a trial violates their right to due process and a speedy trial.

The opposition activists’ cases are moving more slowly than others, Soeung Senkaruna, spokesperson for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, told RFA.

“In this case, we would like to see the same legal responsibility be implemented for the detained activists, by speeding up the trial process,” he said, explaining that prolonged pre-trial detention violates the rights of the accused.

“Civil society organizations have consistently insisted on the court considering dropping the charges and granting detainees liberty,” Soeung Senkaruna said.

The CNRP was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in 2017, a move that paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win every seat in the National Assembly in the 2018 general election.

The dissolution of the CNRP kicked off a five-year crackdown on political opposition, with many of those affiliated with the party arrested and detained on charges like conspiracy, incitement, and treason.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Eugene Whong.