A Sam Rainsy Party deputy commune chief in Banteay Meanchey province’s Poipet town was arrested and placed in pre-trial detention yesterday after authorities seemingly resurrected a nearly two-year-old case involving a protest that turned violent.
The move came the same day that another SRP deputy commune chief was arrested in Phnom Penh for alleged forgery after reportedly giving an observer the wrong identification card during last year’s nationwide voter registration drive.
Chao Veasna, a deputy commune chief in Poipet, was charged with incitement for his alleged involvement in a 2015 protest at a customs office. Veasna has said he merely attended the protest to facilitate dialogue after protesters began hurling rocks at the office and burning car tyres.
Choung Choungy, Veasna’s attorney, said investigating judge Ek Polifil detained his client following a four-hour interrogation. Throughout the questioning, Veasna maintained his innocence, insisting that he had never encouraged violence, Choungy said, but the judge still opted to detain him, allegedly to prevent him from harassing potential witnesses.
“We will request bail for him, perhaps next week,” Choungy said. “He is not a flight risk.”
Sor Chandeth, a senator for the Sam Rainsy Party – which merged with the Human Rights Party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party following the 2012 commune elections – said the case against Veasna is politically motivated.
Veasna is a top CNRP candidate for the upcoming commune elections, he said, and it was widely believed the popular politician could win the position of commune chief. The recent charges could derail his candidacy, however.
“The case isn’t reasonable,” Chandeth noted. “Veasna went to the scene to observe in his capacity as a member of the local authorities.”
Soum Chankea, Adhoc coordinator in Banteay Meanchey, said that he saw Veasna with other local officials when he was monitoring the 2015 protest.
“I asked [Veasna] why he was there, and he said he wanted to tell the protesters not to be violent, to prevent violence,” Chankea said.
Meanwhile, in Phnom Penh, Ly Sokun, an SRP deputy commune chief in Tuol Kork district, was also sent to pre-trial detention for allegedly forging a public document, a charge stemming from an incident in which he allegedly gave an election observer the wrong identification card.
According to Meng Sopheary, Sokun’s lawyer, on the first day of election registration in September, Sokun was put in charge of issuing ID cards for observers. During the process, he put a photograph of one observer onto an ID with another observer’s name, which Sopheary maintained was an honest mistake.
“It was just confusion. He did not mean to forge a document in his own interest,” Sopheary said, adding that the incident was already being resolved at the commune level and that they had not expected that it would be sent to court.
Sokun could face a jail sentence of between five to 10 years, she added.
Kol Phanha, executive director of Comfrel, said that the detention of opposition leaders could have a negative impact on the upcoming elections by taking away their opportunity to compete.
“No politician should be detained just because of their work,” he said.