Cambodian youth activist Kong Raiya on Monday marked the fifth day of a hunger strike in protest of the conditions of his detention while awaiting trial on charges of “incitement to commit a felony,” after he was arrested for selling T-shirts honoring murdered political commentator Kem Ley last week.
On July 9, authorities in Phnom Penh detained Kong Raiya, 28, his wife Sok Srey Nich, her parents, and Kong Raiya’s nine-month-old baby for the T-shirts bearing Kem Ley’s portrait and urging people to wear them to mark the third anniversary of his death a day later.
Police later released Sok Srey Nich, her parents, and the baby, but charged Kong Raiya—an activist with the now-banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)—with incitement under Articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code, and he is now being held at the Phnom Penh Correctional Center awaiting a court hearing.
On July 11, Kong Raiya began a hunger strike, demanding that authorities allow him the right to read, exercise, and provide him with a better room, as well as a space to meditate.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Sok Srey Nich said that she is worried about her husband’s health, as he already suffers from stomach problems, and the hunger strike is likely to exacerbate them.
“He looks weak, pale, and is experiencing chest pain,” she said, noting that Kong Raiya has only had water to drink since July 11.
“He wants to be allowed to read, to exercise and to have space for meditation, as his cell is overcrowded.”
Sok Srey Nich said that, so far, her husband’s requests have been “ignored” by prison guards.
Nuth Savana, a spokesperson for the Interior Ministry’s Prison Directoriate, told RFA he was unaware of Kong Raiya’s situation, but said his demands are “not a big deal,” and that he will “look into” the matter.
“[We] know that—it is normal that our prisons are overcrowded,” he said.
“There is time each day when he is allowed to exercise. They don’t keep him inside the cell all the time.”
Kong Raiya’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, recently told RFA he plans to file a request for his client to be released on bail.
The youth activist was also arrested in 2015 and served 18 months in jail for “incitement to commit a felony” after he posted a comment on his Facebook page that made reference to a color revolution in Cambodia.
Kem Ley was shot to death in broad daylight on July 10, 2016 while having a morning coffee at a Caltex gas station in the capital Phnom Penh, days after publicly criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family for abuse of power and unexplained wealth.
Authorities charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang with the murder and sentenced him to life in prison in March 2017, but many in Cambodia do not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt. In May, Cambodia’s Supreme Court rejected Oeuth Ang’s appeal for reduction of sentence and upheld his life imprisonment term.
Kong Raiya was arrested a day before youth activists, students, and representatives of unions and civil society gathered at the Caltex station where Kem Ley was killed to drink coffee and lay wreaths to honor his memory, but were met with around 100 police and members of the security forces who prevented them from paying their respects—including by demanding that they remove T-shirts bearing the commentator’s image.
Authorities also arrested youth activist Suong Neakpaon, 29, at the event, where he had been distributing leaflets that read “End extrajudicial killings,” and a day later, Phnom Penh deputy prosecutor Che Song also charged him with “incitement to commit a felony.”
Following the event, 86 NGOs issued a joint statement slamming the deployment of security forces to the event commemorating Kem Ley and demanding the immediate and unconditional release of the two charged men.
The groups also noted that authorities had imposed similar restrictions on Buddhist ceremonies to mark Kem Ley’s death in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Kampong Thom, Prey Veng and Tboung Khmum provinces on Wednesday, telling supporters that they required prior permission to hold the events, and deploying a heavy police presence to monitor them when they went ahead.
US weighs in
On Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh slammed what it called the Cambodian government’s “ongoing practice of using baseless, politically-motivated charges to harass its citizens,” citing the incidents surrounding last week’s event.
“All Cambodians should be able to exercise their rights to express their views freely and assemble peacefully,” the embassy said in a statement on its Facebook page.
“We have consistently urged the Cambodian government to remove undue political restrictions on all persons in Cambodia, release those prisoners who have been arbitrarily or unlawfully detained, and uphold human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin dismissed the statement, calling it “politically motivated” and wrong for criticizing what he said was a “legal response by the government.”
“The [embassy’s] criticism not only has no legal basis, but also suggests hatred and revenge [against the Cambodian government],” he told RFA.
“Instead of this kind of rhetoric, the U.S. should provide legal aid to those activists [arrested last week] so that they can stand up and challenge the charges made against them by competent authorities.”
The arrests of Suong Neakpaon and Kong Raiya had followed calls by two dozen NGOs and the U.S. Embassy for Cambodia’s government to establish an independent and impartial commission to investigate Kem Ley’s murder, with the NGOs citing a “flawed investigation” into his killing and a “lack of progress in subsequent investigations” of suspected accomplices.
On July 12, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia issued a statement noting that three years after Kem Ley’s death, “many questions remain unanswered,” and reiterated a call by U.N. experts at the time of his murder for an independent investigation to reverse a trend in Cambodia whereby activists and rights defenders face increasing restrictions to exercise human rights.