Refugee rights groups have expressed grave concerns that Thailand’s recent extradition of Cambodian refugee Sam Sokha could set a “dangerous precedent” and impact the scores of opposition figures currently seeking refuge in Thailand.
Following the forced dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in November and the arrest of its president, Kem Sokha, many opposition supporters and officials fled Cambodia.
At present, there are estimates of more than 100 Cambodian opposition supporters residing in Thailand, with roughly half of those reportedly seeking asylum.
Sam Sokha was handed over to Cambodian authorities on Thursday evening. She was wanted in Cambodia for allegedly “insulting a public official” and for “incitement to discriminate” after a video was posted to Facebook showed her throwing a sandal at a ruling Cambodian People’s Party billboard bearing the faces of Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Soon after she was extradited, Kampong Speu Provincial Court documents were released showing Sokha was sentenced in absentia to two years in prison on January 25.
Kampong Speu Provincial Prison Director Kak Savon yesterday confirmed Sokha was incarcerated in his facility after provincial police delivered her there on Friday evening.
The move – a violation of “customary international law” not to return refugees to countries where they face persecution – deeply concerned international rights groups, who feared a similar approach might be taken with Cambodia’s other political dissents.
Reached after the extradition of Sokha, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak did not deny the government may seek the return of opposition supporters hiding in Thailand.
“Good question. Wait and see,” he said, chuckling, before hanging up.
Evan Jones, from the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), said while Thailand had “a fairly good record when it comes to not returning refugees to their country of origin”, it appeared they had “capitulated to political pressure” in Sokha’s case. “The recent deportation of Sam Sokha sets a dangerous precedent for the countless other Cambodian opposition figures that may be hiding in Thailand,” he said in an email.
“If Thai authorities are willing to return a UNHCR recognised refugee, then sadly there is little hope that they’ll respond humanely or appropriately towards others that may be caught.”
His fears were shared by CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua, who fled the Kingdom in October and remains abroad.
“Human lives are in danger. Violations of the rights of those with refugee status [are a] violation of human rights that UN member states must not commit,” she said in a message.
In a statement on Friday, Human Rights Watch said Thailand had returned Sokha despite being fully aware she was a refugee and that Western embassies and the United Nations’ refugee body, the UNHCR, were trying to find her a third country for resettlement.
“This case sets a worrisome precedent for how Thailand will treat the many other refugees currently on its soil,” HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said.
Sokha was arrested in Thailand in early January for overstaying her visa – a charge her lawyers were in the process of appealing when she was extradited.
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) Communications Programme Manager Marte Hellema said via email that “blatantly ignoring” Sokha’s refugee status and sending her back to Cambodia “raises very serious concerns about others that have also sought refuge in Thailand”.
“It indicates a grave underestimation or disregard for the risk to life and liberty refugees face when [sent] back to their countries,” she said. “As such, it is hoped that this particular case will remain an exception, and not turn into a precedent.”
“While the Cambodian government might be inclined to reciprocate this move by its neighbouring country, FORUM-ASIA reminds Cambodia that it is a state party to the UN Refugee Convention, and as such is obligated to uphold all of its provisions, including those relating to non-refoulement.”
Back in October 2016, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said the government was “processing” Thailand’s request to extradite three of their nationals “for insulting the Thai monarchy” – just one of several requests globally to return those who had allegedly violated tough lèse majesté laws.
Sounry could not be reached yesterday to verify the outcome of that request or answer if Cambodia would reciprocate by sending other Thai dissents back from Cambodia. Thai Foreign Ministry officials could not be reached or did not respond to requests for comment.