Cambodia has arrested yet another rights activist for “incitement” as the United Nations and a major human rights group lambasted the country’s government Friday for repressing voices critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership.
Muong Sopheak, the brother of Khmer Student Intelligent League Association president Muong Sony, was arrested on Thursday following a court-ordered warrant and jailed on charges of “incitement to provoke social unrest,” Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sokseiha told RFA’s Khmer Service.
San Sokseiha did not provide any details about what Muong Sopheak, 24, had done to prompt the arrest and charges.
“This is a normal procedure—we executed the court’s warrant, arrested him, and sent him to the court right away,” he said.
Muong Sopheak had taken part in a protest organized by youth activists on Sept. 6 at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park and in petitioning the U.S. Embassy to intervene in the cases of other activists who are jailed on similar charges.
Koet Saray, a Buddhist monk, and Mean Prommony, vice-president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, were arrested that day, apparently in retaliation for planning a demonstration to call for the release of the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions Rong Chhun.
Rong Chhun was arrested on July 31 and charged with incitement after publicly claiming that Cambodia’s government had ceded land to neighboring Vietnam amid a redrawing of their shared border.
Muong Sony told RFA that his brother had been arrested without prior notice and that police had yet to officially inform the family.
He said Muong Sopheak had broken no law and called his arrest “yet another persecution” against activists who raise concerns over social issues and demand justice, as well as a form of “intimidation” against youth campaigners.
“The arrest shows that the government is concerned, but it should not be because Cambodia is a democratic country,” he said.
“Youths are advocating because they are also nationalists, they are working for the country. The government should have more patience and understanding and encourage them instead.”
Ny Sokha of local rights group Adhoc said Muong Sopheak had acted in line with the constitution and urged the authorities to stop arbitrarily arresting people who should be provided with the freedom to speak out against injustice.
“We have reiterated our appeals asking the government to consider releasing and dropping charges against all activists recently arrested and resume seeking solutions to resolve national issues such as land disputes, poverty, and social justice,” he said.
Muong Sopheak’s arrest came as the U.N.’s human rights agency issued a scathing indictment of the Cambodian government’s repression of its citizens, calling on authorities to release those arrested for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association in the country.
In a statement on Friday, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said it had documented the arrest of 24 human rights campaigners since Rong Chhun was taken into custody, including eight in September alone.
While 13 were released after pledging to refrain from further rights activities, 12 remain in detention—most of whom face charges of “incitement to commit felony,” including three environmental activists.
Several people have reported receiving threatening phone calls, including death threats, if they don’t end their activism, the statement said, while numerous rights campaigners are in hiding for fear of arrest.
The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights said it had documented “unnecessary and excessive use of force” by security forces against protesters on multiple occasions, as well as intimidation of those taking part in peaceful demonstrations.
It also noted an ongoing crackdown against civil society organizations that has seen two groups shut down for “incitement” and unannounced visits to other by officials under the pretext of checking their registration.
“The current situation marks a deepening of the Government’s intolerance to dissent and repression of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” the statement said, noting that mostly human rights organizations, environmentalists, and human rights defenders have been targeted.
“We call on the Government to immediately and unconditionally release those detained for their exercise of these rights, and to bring an end to the intimidation of civil society actors. We call on the security forces to stop resorting to unnecessary and excessive force and intimidation against those engaged in peaceful protests.”
Call for UN resolution
Also on Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling on Cambodian authorities to “immediately drop baseless incitement charges against 14 recently detained youth and environmental activists and unconditionally release them,” referring to a group arrested since August that included 11 calling for Rong Chhun’s release.
“The Cambodian authorities’ latest wave of arrests of activists shows a highly disturbing disregard not only for freedom of expression and assembly, but for land rights and the environment,” said Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director.
“The authorities should stop misusing penal code provisions on incitement to prevent peaceful critics from making public demands of the government.”
HRW noted that Cambodia is currently detaining more than 50 people on politically motivated grounds, including activists from the banned opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), youth, environmental activists, and journalists reporting for independent media outlets.
The group demanded that the government “free all those wrongfully detained” and called on Hun Sen to end what it said amounts to a “de facto ban on critical protests” in the capital.
“These recurring abuses make it all the more important that the U.N. Human Rights Council adopt a resolution that increases U.N. monitoring and reporting on human rights in Cambodia by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights,” Robertson said.
This month marked three years since the government ratcheted up a campaign of repression against the CNRP, arresting Kem Sokha in September and banning his party in November that year for its supposed role in an alleged plot to overthrow Hun Sen with U.S. help.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.