Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Cambodian authorities to end “baseless” convictions of former opposition officials and activists ahead of this year’s general election.
The prominent US-based rights group said in a statement on Monday that the authorities should throw out the cases against 11 members and supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was dissolved by a Supreme Court decision last year.
The former opposition members are due to have their cases heard by the appeals court on Thursday and could face between seven and 20 years in prison if their convictions are not overturned.
Brad Adams, Asia director of HRW, said in the statement that the 11 CNRP members were the subject of “bogus” cases after the CNRP won a large minority in the 2013 general election.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party apparently decided to lock up political opponents to stave off defeat at the ballot box,” he added.
Chin Malin, a justice spokesman, rejected the allegation.
“If they want to help, they should take action and be a part of the court procedure. That means studying Cambodian law clearly, offering legal documents, seeking lawyers for the prisoners, instead of just criticizing,” he said.
The prisoners have been held in jail since 2014 when they took part in a protest in July that called for the reopening of a square in the capital, Phnom Penh, that had become a focal point for opposition demonstrations against the government’s deadly crackdown on the opposition and striking garment workers.
The authorities had regularly employed uniformed para-police to violently disburse pro-opposition rallies after the election, which rights groups and election observers said was marked by numerous irregularities.
Five CNRP members of parliament were arrested and 19 activists and human rights defenders were also detained and later released as part of a deal between the CNRP and ruling CPP that allowed the opposition to end a boycott of parliament.
But the government did not drop the charges against those involved.
Adams added: “Although the government has banned the political opposition from the July elections, Cambodian authorities have persisted with political trials of people who stood up to Hun Sen and the ruling party,” he added that “This case is particularly twisted because the people charged not only didn’t commit violence, but some actively tried to prevent it. The court’s ruling, in this case, sends a broader message to the international community that the future of peaceful public dissent in Cambodia is at stake.”
Son Chhay, a former CNRP lawmaker, said there should be an independent investigation into the clash between security forces and protesters.
“I think violence did occur on both sides. Security guards violently hit the protesters many times so there should be an independent investigation to find the root cause. As we already know, we still question the credibility of the authorities’ investigation,” he said.