Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior has threatened to seize the assets of officials from the country’s now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) if they do not end a call to boycott the general election in July, drawing concern from observers who say there is no legal precedent to do so.
Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak warned over the weekend of “legal action” under Cambodia’s electoral law against former officials of the CNRP, who have urged supporters to steer clear of the polls and avoid legitimizing the July 29 election after their party was shut down by the Supreme Court in November for allegedly plotting to topple the government and banned from taking part in the vote.
Khieu Sopheak told local media that the legal action would include the seizure of assets, and said such a move would be justified because the former officials are no longer residing in the country.
Several CNRP officials and activists have fled Cambodia since the party was banned and are currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid facing cases widely seen as politically motivated and tried in a court system that lacks independence.
The ministry’s statement follows warnings in December from Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)—the nation’s top electoral body—of 5-20 million-riel fines (U.S. $1,240-$4,950) and “other criminal punishment” for those “sowing distrust of the election” after RFA’s Khmer Service reported on low turnout for voter registration following the dissolution of the CNRP.
Sok Sam Oeun, the lead attorney at the Amrin Law and Consultations Group, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he had no idea what legal provision the Ministry of Interior could employ to carry out the threats, as calling for a boycott of an election is not illegal in Cambodia.
“If the assets are not the proceeds of a criminal activity, they cannot be seized,” he said.
Korn Savang, senior election observer for the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), told RFA that officials should be “more objective” when interpreting the country’s laws, adding that urging people not to vote is an exercise of free speech, and not an “obstruction” of the election.
“Any officials in the government who intend to carry out legal actions that are not guided by the law are allowing their hearts to rule their heads,” he said.
“It could be done ‘legally,’ but it is politically motivated.”
CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang told RFA that Prime Minister Hun Sen regularly uses Cambodia’s courts as a political tool to oppress the country’s opposition, but said he was unconcerned with the threat of having his assets seized—a method he likened to those used by the bloody Khmer Rouge regime.
“This kind of practice is very familiar, but only the Khmer Rouge would use it,” he said of the 1975-79 regime, which forced large-scale evacuations and relocations.
“The Khmer Rouge evacuated people from the cities and seized all their belongings. Now Hun Sen is introducing the policy of the Khmer Rouge regime again … We will leave it up to the people to decide on this [policy].”
Former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid convictions seen as politically motivated, told supporters in Vancouver, Canada, on Sunday that he was undeterred by government threats in response to his call for an election boycott, and urged them to tell their family members in Cambodia to stay away from the ballot boxes in July.
“Cambodian patriots are now at a crossroads, but they must turn right and take the CNRP-recommended road for their safety, that of their families and their nation—they must not turn left and take the Hun Sen-recommended road that leads to the polling station,” he said.
“Turning right is entering our house instead—to be prepared to stay at home and to boycott the upcoming July 29 fake election.”
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of July.
As of Monday, the NEC has approved 16 of the 20 political parties that have registered for the election, after the committee extended the period for parties to register beyond the original May 14 deadline.
Of the approved parties, only the CPP and the royalist Funcinpec Party currently hold seats in the National Assembly, or parliament, and ran in the last general election of 2013—although Funcinpec only obtained its seats after the CNRP was dissolved, and not through an election. The other parties are largely considered government-aligned or too insignificant to garner many votes.
The NEC will allow the remaining four political parties five more days to submit the documents required to register for the election, according to committee spokesperson Hang Puthea.
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s newly adopted lèse-majesté law claimed its second victim on Sunday, when authorities arrested 70-year-old barber and the CNRP’s former executive director of Siem Reap province Ban Samphy at his home in the Kampong Kdey commune’s Punleu Preah Phos village, in the province’s Chy Kreng district.
The law, which was unanimously adopted by the CPP-dominated National Assembly in mid-February, allows prosecutors to bring a criminal lawsuit on behalf of the monarchy against anyone deemed to have insulted the royal family—a charge that carries a punishment of between one and five years in prison and a fine of between U.S. $500 and $2,500.
A week earlier, Ban Samphy had shared a post by Facebook user “Khmer Thatcher” of a photo of King Norodom Sihamoni in his car and a video of a group of villagers protesting over being displaced by the controversial Lower Sesan 2 dam project with a caption that read, “This is the result of the leadership of Hun Sen, the terrorist, and the fake king,” to his personal Facebook account.
The former CNRP official has been placed under court supervision and is being detained in Siem Reap Prison. No date has been set for his trial.
Lawyer Pheng Heng told RFA after Ban Samphy’s arrest that there is “no law covering ‘shares’ and ‘likes’ on Facebook or other social media,” and suggested he should be released.
Ban Samphy’s family has called for the authorities to free him, saying he had no intention of insulting the king, and that his Facebook post was only meant to “let his [Facebook] friends make their own judgment” about the situation.
Soeng Sen Karona, a senior investigator for the rights group Adhoc, called on the authorities to reconsider tough measures against people regarding the lèse-majesté law.
“Some people are not well-informed of the law, so the authorities need to conduct a thorough investigation to find out if Ban Samphy intended to insult the king, and if he was aware that he would be punished by sharing such a post through social media,” he said.
“Generally, people in rural areas are new to social media and mainly use it to access sources of information.”
Ban Samphy’s arrest follows that of 50-year-old Kheang Navy, the director of a primary school in Kampong Thom province who was taken into custody on May 13 after commenting on a Facebook post that the king and other members of the royal family colluded with Hun Sen to dissolve the CNRP.