A court in Cambodia on Friday charged acting president of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy with “insulting the King,” a day after he gave an interview in which he called King Norodom Sihamoni a “puppet” of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor Keo Sothea brought charges against Sam Rainsy and ordered his detention on the same day that the Ministries of the Royal Palace, Defense, and Justice issued statements slamming the CNRP chief, who lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a number of convictions he says are politically motivated, but has vowed to return to help lead Cambodia next month.
“The Palace condemns Sam Rainsy, who acts traitorously and has repeatedly offended the King, who is highly revered and fulfilling a noble role of protecting national unity and sustainability,” the Royal Ministry said in its statement, followed by a statement from the Ministry of Defense that also called the opposition leader a traitor.
Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana had also issued an order to the court to “take serious and decisive actions against Sam Rainsy.”
The statements and leveling of charges came in response to an interview Sam Rainsy gave to RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday, in which he was asked about late King Norodom Sihanouk’s role in mediating stalemates between political parties and whether he would be able to resolve the ongoing dispute between the CNRP and Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“No one can compare to the former King Sihanouk,” Sam Rainsy said of Norodom Sihamoni’s father, who died in October 2012.
“But now, all Cambodians are Hun Sen’s hostages, even the [current] King. [Sihamoni] is afraid of Hun Sen and wants to maintain his throne, so there is nothing we can expect from a king who is the puppet of Hun Sen.”
Sam Rainsy on Friday stood by his comments, posting a message to his Facebook account in which he said that the Royal Palace is “under Hun Sen’s control” and that the Prime Minister is “the true traitor.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple Hun Sen’s regime, two months after police arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha and accused him of planning a coup. The opposition leader faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
The moves against the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodia’s government has sought to downplay the impending return of Sam Rainsy, who the CNRP announced last month will return to Cambodia from exile, along with several other high-ranking party officials, on Nov. 9 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of Cambodia’s independence from France, despite threats by Hun Sen to imprison them.
Sam Rainsy recently vowed to lead two million migrant workers from Cambodia toiling in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and other countries, home when he returns to lead what he says will be a restoration of democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian nation.
Pretext to prevent return
On Friday, analyst Kim Sok told RFA that the CPP is using Sam Rainsy’s comments from the interview as a new pretext to prevent him from returning to Cambodia.
He said that he believes Sihamoni wants political reconciliation because the statement against Sam Rainsy was issued by the Ministry of the Royal Palace, rather than from King himself.
“The Royal Palace’s statement was written by the government [not the King],” he said.
“[Sam Rainsy] only said that the ruling party is pressuring and disrespecting the King.”
The charges brought on Friday mark the second time Sam Rainsy has been the target of legal action related to comments he made about the King.
In May, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Sam Rainsy in-absentia to a total of eight years in prison for “demoralizing the armed forces” and “insulting the King” after he issued statements urging the military to refrain from arresting him upon his return to Cambodia and calling an election letter written by Sihamoni “fake or written under duress.”
The convictions were added to a list of those carrying sentences the opposition chief has yet to serve, including a five-year jail term for forging documents about the border shared by Cambodia and Vietnam in 2016, and a 20-month jail term for defamation after he accused Hun Sen of being responsible for the murder of political analyst Kem Ley that same year.
Also on Friday, police detained at least three CNRP activists in what the opposition and rights groups said were “illegal” and “politically motivated” arrests.
Taken into custody were Yat Phyrum in Banteay Meanchey province, Tum Bunthorn in Siem Reap province, and You Chanthany in Phnom Penh, Morn Phalla, the opposition party chief for Phnom Penh told RFA.
Morn Phalla called the arrests “illegal” because the arresting police lacked warrants, and suggested the three were targeted for expressing support for their party’s acting president.
“These arrests won’t deter the CNRP from supporting Sam Rainsy’s return,” he said.
“Even though we face intimidation from the Phnom Penh authorities, we CNRP members will continue to struggle for the sake of the country.”
Yat Phyrum’s wife told RFA that police said her husband was arrested because of a traffic accident, but maintained that he hadn’t been involved in any accidents, calling the situation “very unjust.”
Soeng Senkaruna of local rights group Adhoc echoed Morn Phalla’s concerns that no warrants were presented during the three arrests, which he called “politically motivated.”
“Our constitution protects political rights, so expressing one’s political views is not a crime,” he said.
Soeng Senkaruna urged the authorities to strictly implement the law and refrain from bias toward any political party.
The arrests on Friday bring to 24 the number of CNRP activists taken into custody by police since the beginning of 2019.