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Cambodia Arrests Former Opposition Official Over 'Debt to Microfinance Institution'

2020-04-20 -- Authorities in Cambodia arrested a former official of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Monday over what they claimed was a "debt to a microfinance institution," according to his wife, amid an ongoing government crackdown on the opposition.

Sok Chenda, a member of the CNRP's now-dissolved Prey Veng Provincial Council, was taken into custody at his home in Kram village and sent to the capital Phnom Penh "without a warrant," his wife Soun Chanthu told RFA's Khmer Service, echoing reports of similar tactics used by police to arrest opposition members in recent months.

"They came to arrest my husband after 3:00 p.m. and took him to Phnom Penh," Soun Chanthu said of the large group of authorities who surrounded the couple's home.

"All they said was that my husband had a debt with a microfinance institution," she said.

While Soun Chanthu acknowledged that Sok Chenda is in debt to a microlender, she did not specify which one or how much he owes.

It was also not immediately clear where authorities took Sok Chenda in the capital.

Chhay Kim Kheoun, spokesperson of the National Police, refused to comment when asked by RFA about the former CNRP official's arrest by telephone.

Soeung Senkarona, spokesman for Cambodian rights group Adhoc, told RFA he also does not know Sok Chenda's location.

But he suggested that the government had been using the spread of the coronavirus to legitimize what he called the "arbitrary" arrests of nearly a dozen CNRP members since the outbreak was first confirmed in Cambodia in January.

"I think [these arrests are] politically motivated, rather than a proper implementation of the law, because they were made [without warrants]," he said.

Overcrowded prison

Sok Chenda's arrest came as the wife of detained former CNRP chief of Toul Kok commune Khem Phearna told RFA that her husband, who suffers from hypertension, had called her from Phnom Penh's Prey Sar Prison, saying that overcrowded conditions are forcing detainees in his cell to take turns sleeping, sitting, and standing.

"He said he is in shock and when I heard what he told me, my heart almost stopped beating," said Sok Polyma.

"However, I am trying to stay strong mentally because if I fall sick, nobody will be able to help my husband. I am so worried for his safety."

Sok Polyma pleaded for Prime Minister Hun Sen to grant her husband bail so that he can receive treatment for his medical condition.

Prison spokesperson Nuth Savana dismissed Sok Polyma's claim that Prey Sar is overcrowded, saying the government recently relocated 200 prisoners to detention centers outside of the city.

"She simply told the media, unofficially, and told the media to ask me," he said.

"Anybody can come up with this kind of claim. She should submit a complaint to the Ministry of Interior."

But deputy director of Cambodian rights group Licadho's Human Rights Investigation Team, Am Sam Ath, told RFA that his organization has documented overcrowding at Prey Sar and other prisons, and said authorities have done little to resolve the problem.

He called on the country's courts to expedite pending cases and release detainees being held for minor crimes.

As of April, Cambodian prisons hold some 38,500 detainees–only around 10,000 of whom have been tried and convicted.

Call to expedite investigation

Also, on Monday, the family of a CNRP activist who died six months ago while being taken into custody by authorities called on court authorities to expedite an investigation into her case and provide them with justice.

Sam Bopha, 48, from Svay Rieng province had been involved in an argument with her husband in October last year after his father–a former elected official with the CNRP–"confessed" to authorities about acting party chief Sam Rainsy's planned return on Nov. 9 to "restore democracy" in Cambodia, which the government had labelled part of a "coup attempt" and ultimately blocked.

Sam Bopha's father-in-law filed a domestic abuse complaint against her with the police, who came to detain her at her home, but she was killed after she fell from an officer's motorbike en route to the local station, her brother Sam Dina told RFA at the time, suggesting that the arrest appeared "politically motivated" because of the large police response to a family dispute.

On Monday, Sam Dina questioned why the Svay Rieng Provincial Court has "dragged its feet" on the investigation into his sister's death.

"We have plenty of evidence, including photos and video, showing when the police officers came to arrest my sister at her home," he said.

"We submitted this evidence to the court long ago, so why does it continue to delay the case?"

The victim's lawyer, Sam Sok Kong, told RFA that court officials have only spoken with the family once since the complaint was filed in November.

"Dragging things on without expediting the investigation really impacts due process and justice for the victim," he said.

Svay Rieng Provincial Court deputy prosecutor Chhiv Echkong attributed the delay to the recent appointment of a new prosecutor, Kam Sophary.

"He just arrived, so he is unfamiliar with the case," he said, adding that he will speak with Kam Sophary about the matter.

Human rights campaigners and her lawyer have called the arrest of Sam Bopha "arbitrary and forceful," and said the police who took her into custody should be held accountable for her death.

Warrants issued

Also, on Monday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued arrest warrants dated April 20 for Heang Kimreoun, a former official with the smaller opposition Beehive Social Democratic Party and the head of his party's youth wing, Thol Sophanna, for alleged "incitement to commit crimes" and "public insults."

The two men have been in hiding after Heang Kimsreoun made comments critical of the government's handling of border issues with Vietnam, and Monday's warrants followed a complaint submitted to the court by Pich Sros, the president of the ruling Cambodian People's Party-affiliated Cambodian Youth Party.

Speaking to RFA from an undisclosed location on Monday, Heang Kimsreoun called the court order to arrest him and Thol Sophanna "illegitimate" because it violates his right to freedom of expression.

"I am a victim of the improper implementation of law in Cambodia because [the warrant] is not based on rule of law, but rule of lip," he said.

In December, Cambodia signed a treaty for the country's border with Vietnam which is based on a combination of border treaties the two countries used in 1985 and 2005, and recognizes 84 percent of the border's current demarcation.

Border activists say that the legislation will cede land to Vietnam because it is based in part on the 1985 treaty, which was enacted after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979 to oust the Khmer Rouge regime and installed a puppet government to run the country.

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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