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Lawyers Prepare for Case Against Opposition Activists, as Campaigning Continues

Thun Saray (in the middle) is president of Adhoc, a local human rights group which offers lawyer to defend the suspects free of charge.
Thun Saray (in the middle) is president of Adhoc, a local human rights group which offers lawyer to defend the suspects free of charge.

Lawyers for five opposition activists say they are preparing a defense for their clients, who are accused of illegally transporting protected timber, in what their supporters say are politically motivated charges ahead of July’s national elections.

The activists for the Cambodia National Rescue Party were arrested this week and are being detained in Kampot province.

Lawyers from the rights group Adhoc on Thursday submitted an official request to the provincial court to move the case forward, said Prak Sarann, Kampot’s coordinator for the group.

Provincial court prosecutor Chum Samban told VOA Khmer Thursday that the investigation could take up to six months before a hearing is held. The defendants face up to five years in prison on the charges, he said.

The activists were arrested in the midst of a monthlong campaign period leading into the July 28 elections.

Chea Poch, head of the Kampong working group for the Rescue Party, said the arrests had affected the party’s campaigning, and he called the charged “politically motivated.”

Tep Nitha, secretary-general of the National Election Committee, told reporters Thursday it was “too early” to know whether the charges are political, but he said the case was not in the hands of the government’s election agency.

The National Election Committee meanwhile has called on all parties campaigning to avoid election violations or being critical of one another in the run-up to Election Day.

Eight parties are set to compete in the election. The NEC has so far received 70 separate complaints of violations of campaign regulations. Of those, 31 were filed by the Rescue Party, while another 14 were filed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Violations range from the knocking down of party signs and the tearing up of party leaflets to intimidation and disruption of campaign activists, NEC officials said.

Ros Sou, director of election affairs for the Rescue Party, said complaints by his party have not received due attention from the NEC.

The NEC has also put in place a program to help voters who do not see their names on the voter registry or have lost their identification cards to bring two witnesses and two voters to have voter cards issued by their commune chiefs. That could bring in another 1 million voters, with more than 9.5 million people are already registered, officials said.

Election monitors say they are observing the process to ensure that it works.

Koul Panha, head of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that many commune chiefs support the ruling party, making the process suspect.

“Political parties do not trust it, because the commune chiefs issue them,” he said.

The deadline for the new initiative is July 12. That’s a change from the past, where a similar procedure ran up through Election Day, said Hang Puthea, head of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

“This is an action to strengthen against irregularities, as it was a problem of irregularities in issuing voter cards,” he said. “Until today, we have not had any information or problems regarding the voter card.”

However, opposition officials say there are still voter registration concerns, because under the current system, voters can hold two or three different cards, allowing them to vote in Phnom Penh and in the provinces in the same election.

Tep Nitha said party officials will be allowed to examine documentation at provincial offices to guard against irregularities.