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Newly elected commune chief from Cambodian opposition arrested for 2002 ‘robbery’

Authorities in Cambodia arrested a newly elected commune chief over his alleged involvement in a robbery case 20 years ago, sources in the country told RFA.

As a candidate for the opposition Candlelight Party, Nhim Sarom won a seat on the council of Chamna Lue commune in the central province of Kampong Thom during local elections on June 5.

Police took him into custody on Tuesday afternoon, while he was working in the commune hall.

The arrest warrant for his involvement in an incident in 2002 was obtained by RFA. It is dated June 21, 2012, but only enforced, signed by Kampong Thom Provincial Police Commissioner Vorn Sophorn, on June 21, 2022.  

Khat Kheang, Nhim Sarom’s wife, told RFA’s Khmer Service that her husband was innocent, and that his arrest was a violation of political rights and the will of the people.

“I request that the authorities release my husband,” she said. “My husband is not in the wrong, my husband is clean, let the court help release my husband.”

Kampong Thom Provincial Court Investigating Judge Sik Vanna accused Nhim Sarom of robbery for an event that occurred 20 years ago.

The arrest and charges are politically motivated, Thach Setha, the Candlelight Party’s vice president, told RFA.

“The alleged case occurred in 2002 and there was an arrest warrant in 2012, but they never arrested him,” Thach Setha said. “Why did they arrested him only after he was elected to be commune chief?”

According to Thach Setha, the charge is related to the seizure of property for debt repayment.

“Nhim Sarom took a motorbike from a man who owed him money. He took the bike to the police station to try to find a solution,” Thach Setha said.

“The two men later reconciled, and the problem was resolved. …This is political intimidation,” said Thach Setha.

The 20 years between the incident and the arrest was “strange,” Soeung Senkaruna, spokesperson for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, told RFA.

“As far as this case is concerned, it looks like a political issue. It is something that we think will have a significant impact on political competition,” he said.

Arrests like this one can undermine the public’s confidence in Cambodia’s political and legal systems, said Soeung Senkaruna.

Nhim Sarom was one of three Candlelight Party candidates elected to commune councils in Kampong Thom province on May 5, and the second newly elected local official from the party to be arrested following victory in the election.

Ley Sokkon, who won a seat in Battambang province, was arrested June 8 for allegedly violating housing rights when he filmed local authorities of the ruling party registering people to vote on election day.

RFA was unable to reach Kampong Thom Provincial Police Commissioner Vorn Sophorn for comment on Nhim Sarom’s arrest.

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