In an apparent show of force, the government yesterday sent 75 additional police officers to the prison where opposition leader Kem Sokha is being held, a day before Cambodia National Rescue Party representatives plan to gather in front of the prison to protest his arrest.
However the police presence at Correctional Centre 3 (CC3) could prove to be even bigger. In response to the CNRP’s announcement, government mouthpiece Fresh News quoted Tbong Khmum Provincial Police Chief Pen Rot yesterday evening as saying that 200 police staff and 100 soldiers would be sent to the prison today “to maintain security and order for the society and country”.
Meanwhile, international protests against the controversial decision to charge Sokha with “treason” kicked off in multiple countries over the weekend, drawing a quick rebuke from media aligned with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Sokha was arrested in the early hours on September 3 in what has been decried as an illegal move by his lawyers due to his parliamentary immunity and a lack of evidence for his alleged collusion with the US to topple the CPP-led government.
“For safety at CC3 currently, the commanding unit decided to add 75 people from different units to help protect CC3,” Tbong Khmum police announced yesterday on Facebook.
Mu Sochua, deputy CNRP chief, said she expected about 30 parliamentarians and senators to gather at the prison in Trapaing Phlong commune to read a statement, despite a request to visit Sokha today being rejected last week.
Son Chhay, the CNRP’s acting spokesperson, said the reinforcements could stem from a fear of protests. “The authorities are probably afraid that people might go to prison to demand the release of Kem Sokha,” he said.
But Pen Rot said in an interview he had simply followed a request from the prison. “I sent them there as per the request from the prison to help security during Pchum Ben days,” he said, referring to the local holiday, and adding that the officers would stay for about 10 days.
Rot could not be reached again later in the day to confirm the reports that he would deploy 300 more police and soldiers.
Yet prison chief Pin Yan said he had “no idea” about the reinforcements, and hadn’t requested additional personnel.
Sochua doubted their motives. “They say they will protect security. Let’s see tomorrow.”
She then questioned why soldiers were reportedly being deployed to the prison. “Why the army? Is Cambodia at war?”
Naly Pilorge, deputy advocacy director at rights group Licadho, agreed the deployment was inappropriate. “Military should only be used to protect the borders or for natural disaster,” she said.
Meanwhile, Sokha’s wife Te Chanmono was permitted to visit him yesterday and said his “spirit [is] very high”, according to Sochua.
But CNRP lawmaker Suon Rida, who has been tasked with reporting on prison visits and Sokha’s health, said the party president was experiencing some health problems. “He is feeling so sad and unhappy,” he added.
Aside from his imprisonment taking a mental toll, Rida said Chanmono had told him that Sokha’s “face looks swollen and . . . when he walks around her, his legs are weak”.
He claimed the prison’s health official had not yet checked on the opposition leader’s condition. According to his daughter Kem Monovithya, who is also the CNRP public affairs deputy director, Sokha suffered from high blood sugar “at the level that’s close to diabetes”.
Monovithya on Friday said her father’s lawyers had requested the authorities to move him to Phnom Penh.
Meanwhile, the National Assembly is meeting today to decide on whether the court can continue action against him, bypassing his parliamentary immunity because of the alleged red-handed nature of his crime – a designation that has been disputed by experts.
The CNRP will boycott the meeting, according to a statement released yesterday, in which it claims that the meeting is “illegal” since the ruling party did not have the votes to permit the court to pursue the case.
Article 80 of the Cambodian Constitution requires a two-thirds majority to continue an in flagrante delicto – or “red-handed” – case against a parliamentarian, or a three-quarter vote to halt it. The CPP holds just 68 of the 123 seats, well under the two-thirds threshold.
National Assembly spokesperson Leng Peng Long, however, seemed unconcerned.
“The boycott will not affect the meeting,” he said. “If we want the court to pause the charge, there needs to be the vote of three-quarters, equalling 93 votes.”
“If they want to demand a release, and to drop the charge, they should join to defend Kem Sokha,” he said, adding that the court proceedings would only stop if enough votes were collected to halt the case.
Last week, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said the CNRP would be dissolved under controversial new changes to the Political Parties Law if it defended its leader.
CNRP official Prince Sisowath Thomico, however, expressed his support for Sokha on Saturday on Facebook, saying that if the opposition leader was a traitor, then he was a traitor too. “I and all the activists and supporters are also traitors, because all of us are together on a journey with Mr President Kem Sokha, and I myself offer to join fates with him, with no fear at all,” he said.
International condemnation of Sokha’s arrest has poured in over the last week, with Cambodians overseas lending their voices to the choir over the weekend, staging protests in South Korea, Australia, Canada, France and the US. The protests are slated to continue this week in the US and New Zealand.
The protests provoked government mouthpiece Fresh News to go on the defensive, posting a letter from a coalition of little-known Cambodian-Australian organisations, claiming the protests “intentionally confuse the public” and did not reflect the will of the entire diaspora.
Meanwhile, two “reader letters” by the contributor known as Chaksmok Chao – whose past letters justified the expulsion of National Democratic Institute and urged the CNRP to elect Pol Ham president – warned against protests in Cambodia.
The first letter repeated a claim from Hun Sen last week blaming the CNRP for the “cruel violence” that occurred during the 2014 garment worker wage protests, which were brutally quelled when authorities fired into an unruly crowd, killing five.
“Some Cambodian people who are protesting abroad . . . are supporting foreigners to destroy their country,” the letter reads.
The other letter accused the CNRP and former party President Sam Rainsy of being directly involved in the international protests. “Although Son Chhay, a senior official at the CNRP, declared that the protests abroad are not related to his party, this is just a strategy to hide the truth,” the letter reads.
Under the newly revised Political Parties Law, convicted criminals, like Rainsy, are barred from associating with political parties. Rainsy himself strongly denied participating in the protests, adding there was no evidence to support the accusation. “Cambodians abroad are intelligent enough and mature enough to make their own decisions and conduct their own activities,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said yesterday that any demonstrations in Cambodia that were deemed illegal would face “crackdowns”. “The ones who want to have him [Kem Sokha] released are wrong because he has been charged already,” he said. “When doing legal protests, there is no problem . . . but when doing illegal protests, legal measures will be taken.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Nachemson