It’s not a good time to be a critic of Cambodia’s government. Over the past year alone, more than 20 have been jailed, and the list of those behind bars runs the gamut from lawmakers and Facebook users to rights monitors and a senior elections official.
In an apparent scorched-earth campaign against those who have bothered Prime Minister Hun Sen over his 31 years in power—or who could disturb his plans to remain there after the 2018 national election—authorities have even laid charges against a U.N. official.
“You bribed a witness…you pressed them,” Mr. Hun Sen threatened the man on Sunday, warning that his immunity as a U.N. official would not protect him from a claim that he had helped convince a woman to deny an affair with deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha.
One of the opposition’s few commune council chiefs is already in jail for the same claims, and he was joined this week by four senior staff from rights group Adhoc and National Election Committee (NEC) deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya.
So far, no evidence has been publicly released to prove that any of the six in fact attempted to bribe the alleged mistress, or what their motivations would have been.
But that has not stopped the courts from convicting government critics before.
Three opposition officials were last year sentenced to 20 years in prison for “leading an insurrection” for their presence at a protest that turned into a brawl between attendees and notoriously violent state security guards.
No evidence was presented in court to suggest that the officials had instigated the violence or directed it. Eight other CNRP activists were also jailed for seven years for the same protest. Another three have been in jail since Mr. Hun Sen ordered them arrested in August.
An ever-extending list, they have been joined in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison by CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An and Senator Hong Sok Hour, who were arrested for Facebook posts last month and in August, respectively—despite their constitutional immunity from arrest.
Kong Raya, a 25-year-old political science student who made a Facebook post calling for a “color revolution” to bring democracy to Cambodia, is also serving 18 months for incitement.
“This is a sweeping campaign to dismantle the political opposition and neutralize the invaluable work of the country’s independent human rights groups,” said John Coughlan, Amnesty International’s researcher for Cambodia.
“By relying on the courts, the authorities are trying to lend a sheen of legitimacy to a campaign that is nakedly political and totally illegal,” he said.
The list of government critics under the hammer of the legal system runs even longer if those at risk of arrest are included, with two CNRP lawmakers now summoned for questioning over soliciting prostitution for Mr. Sokha, the deputy opposition leader.
Mr. Sokha was himself yesterday summoned to court to answer bizarre claims that he had defamed youth activist Thy Sovantha during a private telephone conversation with an alleged mistress—a recording of which was leaked online two months ago, sparking the scandal.
A two-year prison sentence for opposition leader Sam Rainsy was also suddenly unveiled by officials in November. Mr. Rainsy fled to France, where he has since been hit with a number of new criminal charges that could see him imprisoned for two decades.
Seven other CNRP lawmakers—Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum, Men Sothavrin, Ho Vann, Real Camerin, Nuth Rumduol and Long Ry—have also been charged with “leading an insurrection” for their presence at the protest-turned-brawl, which saw them briefly jailed weeks before they were sworn into the National Assembly.
Mr. Hun Sen has warned the seven could be jailed again because they did not receive their immunity from arrest until they swore in.
“Actually, this is a positive sign,” Koul Panha, the executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said of the use of courts against critics.
“Before, there was more violence. During the 1990s, it was more physical, sometimes up to killing. Now the judicial system is being used to put activists in jail,” Mr. Panha said.
“Mentally, people still feel the fear,” he added. “It is to create an environment of fear toward the people, the human rights organizations, civil society. But it is mainly opposition activists who are affected.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he was not surprised that activists and civil society members caught committing crimes were blaming politics.
“Don’t be confused in publishing this—it is not just the government imprisoning whoever is critical,” Mr. Eysan explained, adding that all of the government critics behind bars had committed real crimes.
“It is normal for those who are guilty not to recognize the truth about their actions, so that when the courts take legal actions, they just criticize it. But we don’t care, because we have followed the law.”
Mr. Rainsy, the opposition leader, said yesterday he could not remember a time in Cambodia’s modern history when so many government critics and civil society members were in jail at the same time.
He attributed the wave of arrests to a growing consciousness within the CPP that it could not win elections organized by the new NEC, created in April 2015 with members of the opposition and civil society on its board and in top administrative posts.
“From a legal point of view, Hun Sen’s Cambodia has become a pariah state and should internationally be considered as such,” Mr. Rainsy said. “All our laws starting with the Constitution are openly and shamelessly violated. The government similarly violates international treaties and conventions.”
“It’s now crystal clear that Hun Sen is trying to derail or seriously pervert the electoral process because he knows that his CPP would lose any real elections in 2017 and 2018 as prepared by the new NEC,” he said. “Hence Hun Sen’s effort to destroy the opposition and the civil society by using the cheapest means as evidenced by the recent arrests with more to come.”
Some, like political commentator Kem Ley, have argued that the spate of arrests of opposition activists and human rights advocates has in fact done little to put down growing opposition to the CPP government.
“People were scared 10 years, maybe three years ago, but right now they are fully immune to fear. Even me. I’m more confident about being outspoken and criticizing in a fair manner,” Mr. Ley said. “Everybody considers the 2013 election the turning point.”
However, Boeng Kak activist Tep Vanny, who has repeatedly been in and out of prison for protesting but was most recently jailed between November 2014 and April 2015, said the fear of prison could cause even the most strident activist to think twice.
“The government wants to eliminate the patriots, and they don’t want any of the critics. It’s getting close to the elections, so they don’t want to have this advocacy affecting their campaigning,” Ms. Vanny said.
“Life in prison breaks you away from your family, your kids and your husband,” she said. “People are afraid of prison because they understand there’s no freedom in custody, and they will lose their futures.”