The Cambodian government should end its crackdown on the political Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that has seen 15 officials and activists detained on “fabricated political charges” carried out since the outbreak of COVID-19, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Wednesday.
In addition to the 15 former CNRP officials and activists, another 80 people released on bail face re-arrest at any time, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement, calling on authorities to immediately release 32 prisoners and pre-trial detainees—including 23 opposition members—it claimed are being held on politically motivated charges.
“The Cambodian government should stop using the world’s attention on the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to crack down on the opposition,” deputy Asia director at HRW Phil Robertson said.
“Concerned governments should make it clear that Prime Minister Hun Sen can’t hide behind a deadly virus to commit rampant rights violations.”
HRW called on governments and donors to publicly demand that Hun Sen release all political prisoners and detainees.
The rights group’s statement follows the arrest of more than 30 people in the first weeks after the pandemic’s outbreak that authorities accused of disseminating “fake news” about its spread in Cambodia—including opposition activists, a child, social media users, and journalists.
Police have detained several opposition activists in May and June based on case files dating back to 2019, HRW noted, while on June 1 Hun Sen threatened to arrest CNRP members who seek to “cause chaos” in connection with a call from the party’s acting chief Sam Rainsy on borrowers to suspend repayment of loans during the outbreak because many had been laid off and could not afford to do so.
Meanwhile, many opposition officials remain in exile out of fear of arrest following the September 2017 arrest of CNRP chief Kem Sokha on charges of plotting to topple the government and the Supreme Court ruling that banned the party two months later for its role in the alleged scheme.
The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
HRW said it had received credible reports in recent week that Cambodian officials and agents have carried out surveillance of CNRP members living in neighbouring countries.
Kem Sokha remains on bail facing a trial on charges the group called “unsubstantiated.” Court proceedings, which began in January, have been postponed indefinitely due to the coronavirus outbreak.
HRW also said the Hun Sen government has also used the pretext of a COVID-19 response to push a state of emergency law through parliament that allows further suppression of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly.
The law raises concerns around its wide scope of unfettered martial powers and unqualified restrictions on civil rights that allow the government to arbitrarily surveil private communications and silence independent media outlets.
Governments need to respond publicly and meaningfully to the Cambodian government’s crackdown, Human Rights Watch said. On February 12, the European Commission announced the partial suspension of Cambodia’s preferential trade preferences with the European Union after the government failed to address serious human rights concerns, including its crackdown on the political opposition.
“The European Union and its member states should factor in the Cambodian government’s renewed crackdown on opposition members when finalizing Cambodia’s partial suspension of trade preferences,” Robertson said. (Source: HRW)