Cambodian authorities on Thursday arrested the chairman of a small Cambodian political party who had been on the run since last week after being accused of falsifying documents to participate in local elections in June.
RFA reported on April 18 that Seam Pluk, chairman of the National Heart Party, had gone into hiding after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest and ordered him to appear in court on April 25. His attorney, Sam Sok Kong, said he intended to appear but the court date did not allow enough time to prepare to fight the charges.
Choung Chou Ngy, another lawyer representing Seam Pluk, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the arrest was not legal as the warrant expired two days ago.
“The police are wrong to execute an expired warrant. The court should take action against the police,” he said.
Choung Chou Ngy also sought to cast doubt on the allegation that Seam Pluk falsified registration documents so that his party could participate in the elections.
“The Interior Ministry conducted a unilateral investigation without the participation of the National Heart Party. Was it an accurate audit? It’s a secret,” he said.
Of the 4,000 fingerprints collected for party registration, the Interior Ministry only identified 200 that may have been forged, he said. Even if there are forgeries, the party has enough support to register, assuming the remaining fingerprints are legitimate, Choung Chou Ngy said.
The political party registration process should not lead to arrests, said Kang Savang, an observer with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel).
“I haven’t seen the department file a complaint for fingerprinting issues. It’s new for me. I’m afraid they’re using the court to deal with the case. This will affect people’s right to participate in the electoral process,” Kang Savang said.
“I think the authorities should not use the court to solve this problem. The ministry should have simply refused to register the party,” he said.
The Home Office decided to prosecute Seam Pluk after accusing him of receiving funds from exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to contest the elections, a charge which Seam Pluk denied.
Sam Rainsy is one of two prominent leaders of the now banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, allowing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win all 125 seats in parliament in the July 2018 elections.
Sam Rainsy, 72, has lived in exile in France since 2015. He was sentenced in absentia last year to 25 years on what his supporters say was a politically motivated charge of attempting to overthrow the government.
Choung Chou Ngy said he will meet Seam Pluk on April 29 in prison to discuss an appeal against his detention.
RFA reported last week that another small opposition party, the Candlelight Party, believed Sam Pluk had been targeted because of his previous support for Candlelight.
The Candlelight party has gained momentum over the past year and its leaders believe it can challenge the CPP in the next election.
After the National Heart Party’s registration was denied, Candlelight Party leadership encouraged Heart Party supporters to join Candlelight.
The Candlelight Party, formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Nation party, was founded in 1995. It merged with other opposition forces to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012.
Seam Pluk’s arrest comes as three NGOs released a report listing hundreds of examples of rights abuses in the country, which Hun Sen has led for decades.
“Despite the government’s duty to respect, protect and promote the freedoms of association, expression and assembly, the report documents more than 300 restrictions and violations of fundamental freedoms in every province”, report by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights rights, Rights and Development Association (Adhoc) and the Solidarity Center.
The report’s findings show that “fundamental freedom is restricted while opposition parties are abused by the state, authorities and third-party actors,” Hun Seanghak, who coordinated the report, told RFA.
But a spokesman for a government-aligned rights group rejected the report’s findings.
“When individuals break the law, the authorities must enforce the law. Is this a violation of human rights? In Cambodia, people enjoy their freedom,” Kata Orn, spokesperson for the pro-government Human Rights Committee in Cambodia, told RFA.
He said the report was designed to please donors and does not reflect the truth about democracy and freedom in Cambodia.
Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.