Cambodia’s government has arrested dozens of opposition officials and supporters in a stepped-up crackdown on dissent, ahead of a prominent opposition leader’s return from self-exile, a rights group said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the release of political prisoners seized in the recent crackdown, sparked by Sam Rainsy’s announcement that he will return with other members of dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades, has threatened to deploy the military if they returned on Nov. 9, saying he would regard the move as an attempted coup d’etat.
Authorities have now seized almost 60 people, including ordinary citizens for criticizing the government online, HRW said. Opposition members faced charges ranging from plotting against the state to discrediting judicial decisions.
“The dozens of politically motivated arrests over the past three months demonstrate that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has no intention of lifting the heavy-handed repression that has darkened Cambodia in recent years,” said HRW Asia director Phil Robertson.
“Foreign governments and donors should loudly call for an end to this wave of arrests and press Cambodia to immediately and unconditionally release all those wrongfully detained for criticizing the government.”
Hun Sen extended his rule last year in an election in which his ruling party won every seat. A crackdown on media, civil society, and opposition supporters in the lead up to the poll drew sharp criticism from Western countries including the European Union.
The CNRP had been disbanded months before the election by the Supreme Court, following the 2017 arrest of party leader Kem Sokha. He remains under house arrest on charges of treason.
Rainsy, founder of the CNRP, has called for a popular uprising against Hun Sen, Sokha’s release, the reinstatement of the party and for free and fair elections.
He announced in August he would return to Cambodia, four years after fleeing to France following a conviction for criminal defamation in which he was ordered to pay $1 million in compensation. He faces a prison sentence in a separate case.
HRW said two former CNRP provincial officials were arrested on Sept. 21 as part of the crackdown. They are accused of plotting to overthrow the government, after they expressed support on their Facebook accounts for the CNRP leadership’s return.
“The Cambodian government is rapidly filling its jails with activists who dare speak out about abuses, post criticism on Facebook, and meet opposition colleagues for Khmer noodles,” Robertson said, referring to a form of defiance against the government, of gathering to eat noodles and discuss politics.
“EU decision-makers should be considering Cambodia’s deep downward spiral on human rights when looking toward next steps on rights and trade relations.”
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