Cambodia has issued a warrant for six at-large suspects convicted of plotting to overthrow the government – a verdict rights groups decried as unfounded and politically motivated.
The fugitives are among 13 Cambodians sentenced last Friday to between five and nine years in prison for planning hostile attacks against the government via an armed wing of the Denmark-based dissident group Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF).
While Cambodia is seeking the repatriation of the remaining suspects, according to presiding judge Seng Neang, rights advocates maintain that many of the convicted are asylum seekers and, as such, protected by international laws.
“If a person is recognised as a refugee or a person of concern, they cannot be returned to a country where they would face persecution or torture,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said.
But the precedent set by the deportees present at the trial isn’t promising. According to Robertson, Thailand already breached international laws last year by arresting and deporting seven of the 13 defendants – who should have been classified as “persons of concern” by the UN as members of a targeted group. Two of the seven claim they were later tortured, and all of them say they were forced to confess.
Three of the remaining fugitives applied to the UNHCR in Bangkok for refugee status, according to Sam Serey, president of the KNLF and a political asylee in Denmark.
“I am not worried for myself, Denmark is a democratic country that honours the law. But I am worried about the members in Thailand,” Serey said. He added that his own younger brother, Yin Yav, was seeking refugee status in Thailand at the time of his arrest.
For confidentiality reasons, the UNHCR in Bangkok would neither confirm nor deny whether any of the convicted had applied for or received refugee status.
But Thailand, which has not ratified the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, has in previous years sent home thousands of Hmong, Uighurs and Rohingya fleeing persecution.
The KNLF, rights advocates and all of the accused – some of whom say they were not even members of the KNLF, but had only attended a nonviolent rights rally – maintain the convictions are purely political and based on fabricated evidence.
“The government always picks some sort of enemy, a small group that it can scapegoat and use to smear the opposition with, and this election season it was the KNLF,” Robertson said.
“We searched for evidence that the group had any intentions or means of using violence, but if there was any
evidence, we wouldn’t be defending them.”
Serey maintains that, contrary to the government’s labelling of it as a terrorist group, the KNLF has always been peaceful.
“[The government] continually violates human rights through forced evictions and land grabs. All these issues, I and the KNLF revealed to the international community . . . Therefore, KNLF is [the government’s] target to eliminate,” he said, adding that he is appealing to Denmark, the US and the EU to intervene on behalf of the accused. Meanwhile, lawyers said they would file an appeal next week. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA