A Phnom Penh municipal court has issued arrest warrants for eight leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who are living in exile in the United States. The warrants were issued on March 12 and charged the CNRP leaders with “treason and incitement to commit felonies.”
The CNRP, a party that opposes prime minister Hun Sen, was dissolved by a court in November 2017 after its leaders were charged with various cases. The former acting president of the party, Kem Sokha, has been in pre-trial detention for over 18 months. The government of Hun Sen has been criticized for its suppression of opposition activities.
The recent warrant leveled the charges against the leaders for participating in meetings of the CNRP in the United States in January, as well as for their social media posts. Incidentally, the warrant was publicized hours after one of the leaders, Sam Rainsy, who is one of the founders and the current acting president of the party, announced his intention to return to Cambodia and resume political work. The exiled leadership had recently declared its intention to move back to Cambodia. Earlier this month several exiled leaders, including Rainsy, individually petitioned for royal pardons and a “political rehabilitation” of the party machinery. There has been no decision yet on these petitions.
In addition to Rainsy, warrants were also issued against party vice-presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang, and five of the former elected members of the National Assembly, Ou Chanroth, Tok Vanchan, Long Ry, Ho Vann, and Men Sothavrin.
The eight leaders were part of the first 24-member permanent committee meeting of the CNRP on January 20, held in Lowell, Massachusetts. The meeting set up an acting CNRP leadership in exile, to replace the leadership that has been incarcerated in Cambodia, since 2017. Sam Rainsy took over as the acting president of the party in place of Kem Sokha who had been taken into custody. Rainsy himself was president of the party before going into exile.
The CNRP was dissolved after many of its leaders were charged on various counts in 2016 and 2017. Rainsy was the first to be charged in 2016, after he accused the Hun Sen government of being behind the assassination of activist and political commentator Kem Ley. Rainsy was forced to flee to the United States to avoid arrest.
A few months after Kem Sokha became the acting president of the party, he was taken into pre-trial detention on charges of planning an assassination attempt on the prime minister. His case was heard by the chief justice, Dith Munty, who was also a permanent committee member of Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Sokha’s arrest prompted more than half the CNRP legislators and almost the entire leadership to flee en masse by September 2017, and the party was dissolved by same bench by November. Sokha continues to await trial while in detention, even though according to Cambodian law, pre-trial detentions can not go beyond 18 months. This period ended on March 16.
The arrest warrants and the detention of the likes of Sokha have been widely perceived as politically motivated in order to crack down on any meaningful opposition. Hun Sen has been the head of the government since 1985, first coming to power as the prime minister of the socialist People’s Republic of Kampuchea. While Hun Sen did oversee the transition of the country into a multi-party democracy, his party continues to dominate the government and has consistently used roundabout legal means to suppress the opposition.
The warrants have been widely condemned by the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), an association of legislators from different parties and ideologies from ASEAN countries. In a statement, the APHR stated that “the criminal charges that led to the warrants are entirely politically motivated and baseless, and mark yet another attempt by the Cambodian government to harass opposition politicians.”