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UN Rights Experts Concerned Over Ongoing Repression on Political Opponents

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith attends a press conference at her office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, May 9, 2019. Smith is on her last two weeks mission to Cambodia. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

The UN claimed that 140 members of the CNRP were questioned, summoned, or detained by Cambodian authorities and courts in relation to social gatherings and online comments.

Two United Nations rights specialists, including the rights envoy to Cambodia, have voiced concerns over ongoing legal intimidation against 140 members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

In a statement issued Wednesday from Geneva, the UN claimed that 140 members of the CNRP were questioned, summoned, or detained by Cambodian authorities and courts in relation to gatherings and online comments, allegedly supporting self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy and president of the dissolved CNRP, Kem Sokha, who is now under house arrest after being jailed for over a year in 2017.

The UN rights rapporteurs Rhona Smith and David Kaye were quoted in the statement as saying the recent actions reflected serious restrictions on “freedom of speech both offline and online” from the Cambodian government. The rights experts urged the Cambodian government to “reverse the current downward trend in the enjoyment of political rights and fundamental freedoms.”

“We are concerned about the use of criminal law to target free speech, both offline and online,” said UN rights experts.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right is one of the essential foundations for a democratic and just society. Restrictions on freedom of expression must be limited and strictly defined and statements of support for political leaders do not fall within such permitted limitations.”

Cambodia’s supreme court, which is dominated by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, dissolved the CPP’s largest opponent, the CNRP, in November 2017. The court also banned 108 CNRP members from participating in all types of political activities.

Recently, authorities and local courts of Cambodia summoned members of the dissolved CNRP for violating the supreme court’s ruling.

The UN experts said the claim made by Cambodia’s courts and authorities did not specify the nature of the alleged violation and the defense lawyer was not allowed to make copies of any of the case files in order to prepare an adequate defense in time.

Two members of dissolved CNRP in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces, Dim Saroeun, and Tout Veasna, were summoned this week to appear before the courts in a similar case.

A former member of the provincial councilor from the opposition party in Battambang province, Dim Saroeun, 46, said that the court’s subpoena is a “politically motivated” act.

“I am now a normal citizen, so what authority and duty do I have to oppose the ruling of the Supreme Court, which dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party on November 16, 2017?” he asked.

Saroeun added that some of the former CNRP members do occasional gatherings for eating Cambodian noodles but that has no relation to politics.

“Will I commit something wrong if I just meet other people for eating noodle [nom banhchok], talking and recounting about presidents Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha?” he asked.

Saroeun said he will appear at Battambang provincial court on June 21, as will Tout Veasna, who is expected to show up in Banteay Meanchey provincial court on July 10.

Officials at both courts—Batambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces—could not be reached for comments.

Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for local rights group LICADHO, told VOA Khmer that ongoing repression on opposition members will likely cost Cambodia its EU trade scheme ‘Everything But Arms” or EBA.

He warned that government’s suppression on opposition members is a “defiance” against EU’s requirements while their second delegates just recently concluded a fact-finding mission in Cambodia.

“During that mission, they put conditions that the prosecutions against opposition’s activists must stop and that there must be an improvement of human rights and the restoration of democracy in Cambodia,” Am Sam Ath said.

Following a systematic government crackdown in 2017, the EU put forward procedures to withdraw Cambodia from its trade benefits, which provide free tariffs to almost every imported product from Cambodia.

Cambodia has eighteen months to reverse the damage done to democracy and fundamental human rights in order to retain its trade benefits.