A Cambodian woman wanted for “incitement” for throwing a sandal at a Cambodian People’s Party billboard last year is being pressured by government officials to return to Cambodia from Thailand, where she fled seeking asylum and was recently arrested for overstaying her visa, according to an international rights group.
Sam Sokha, a Kampong Speu province native, posted a video on Facebook last April of her throwing her sandal twice at a ruling party billboard in Preah Sihanouk province. The first throw was aimed at an image of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the second at one of National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
The former unionist then fled to Thailand and was charged in June by the Kampong Speu Provincial Court with “incitement to discriminate” and insulting a public official, charges that carry a combined sentence of over three years in prison.
Amnesty International yesterday reported that Sokha was arrested on January 6 in Bangkok for overstaying her visa, and was convicted and given a suspended sentence of two months in prison, placed on probation and fined 3,000 baht (about $94).
Sokha had continued to use Facebook while in Thailand, and continued to criticise Cambodia’s premier but has had no social media activity since January 6.
After she was moved to Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Centre in Bangkok, Amnesty reports that she was visited by Cambodian government officials to “pressure” her to return home.
The report says that Sokha now faces a “real risk of imminent deportation by Thai authorities”, despite being protected by the UN Convention against Torture that prevents such deportations.
Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, and has an extradition agreement with Cambodia.
“Amnesty International calls on Thai authorities to not deport UN Refugee Agency [UNHCR] recognised refugees from Cambodia and Viet Nam, who would be at real risk of persecution if returned to their countries,” the statement reads.
Amnesty also expressed concern at the “increased surveillance, harassment and intimidation” by Thai police officers and Cambodian agents of asylum seekers and refugees, saying it extended to opposition officials who fled Cambodia following a widely condemned crackdown on the Cambodia National Rescue Party last year.
The UN Refugee Agency yesterday said they were aware of the case but declined to comment, citing safety and confidentiality reasons. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia said it did not have details on Sokha’s case.
“All over the world, UNHCR consistently advocates with governments to respect the principle of non-refoulement that prohibits sending people back to a place where their lives and freedoms could be in danger,” said Hannah Macdonald, a press officer with the refugee agency.
Sam Rithy, Sokha’s ex-husband, yesterday said that a friend of Sokha’s had informed him of the arrest and that Sokha had previously told him she had applied for refugee status. The father of two added that he had kept his distance from Sokha, fearing his own safety.
“She used to tell me that she applied to be a refugee at the UNHCR, but she did not say if she got it or not,” he said. “She never talked about the officials wanting to send her back to Cambodia.”
An official at the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok said he was not aware of the case, and relevant officials at the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh could not be reached.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said he was unaware of any extradition request. National Police spokesman Kith Chantharith yesterday initially said he did not remember Sokha’s crime but went on to insist police would pursue her for her “brutal” actions.
“We have followed the case since she committed the brutal activity. We have hunted for her since that time. If you commit an illegal activity the police will follow you,” he said.
Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the pursuit of Sokha by the Cambodian government was itself illustrative of why she needed sanctuary, and called on the Thai government to push back on any extradition requests forwarded by Cambodian authorities.
“Thailand should also tell Phnom Penh that international human rights law requires protection of refugees and persons of concern identified by UNHCR, and that Bangkok will not put itself in hot water with the international community to help Cambodia abuse its people.”