Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court on Thursday charged three men with breaking the election law and participating in an anti-government movement after they were caught transporting T-shirts urging Cambodians to abstain from voting in the July 28 national election.
The shirts were ordered and paid for by the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), a dissident group based in the U.S. that Prime Minister Hun Sen has often accused of plotting to topple the government and has labeled a terrorist organization.
Rights groups and independent election monitors have expressed concern over the arrests, saying the accused have done nothing illegal and the T-shirts constitute an issue of freedom of speech.
Banteay Meanchey provincial prison director Hin Sophal said the three men—Im Phearun, 26, Sourn Serey Bunlong, 28, and Seng Sok Meng, 30, all arrested Monday—were sent to the prison Thursday for pretrial detention after being charged.
“The three were sent here today and they have been charged on two counts,” he said, explaining that the men were charged under Article 124 of the law on National Assembly elections, which sanctions those who “disrupt the polling process,” and states that offenders should, as a punishment, have their voter registration cards confiscated. They were also charged with Article 453 of the Penal Code pertaining to membership of an anti-government group, which carries a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
Deputy provincial police chief Khuon Bunhuon also confirmed the charges and said all three men had confessed to meeting members of the KPPM in Thailand—where the 109 shirts, along with some radios and watches, were being transported when the consignment was seized Monday.
“The three have been sent to detention today after being charged for conspiracy in an anti-government movement and disrupting the election process,” he said.
Police in Siem Reap City on Monday also detained two employees of a shop where the T-shirts were allegedly printed, but their situation yesterday remained unclear. The shirts carried the KPPM logo and read, “Our Cambodian people unite and use people power to oppose the cosmetic elections that are not free and fair.”
Siem Reap Provincial Court prosecutor Ty Sovinthal said the criminal case file had been sent to Banteay Meanchey province, but he declined to say whether the pair from the printing shop was still being detained.
Also, in Battambang province, Bavel district police chief Oeun Tith confirmed that his officers yesterday questioned Khen Song, the 71-year-old mother of KPPM president Sourn Serey Ratha, who is based in Washington.
“We didn’t arrest or detain her, we just asked her to give police the packages reportedly dropped of at her home,” he said.
Mr. Tith said that the three arrested men had told police that some of their cargo had been sent to Ms. Song’s house. But he said Ms. Song told police that someone had already picked up the package and that she had no idea what was in it.
Reached by phone, Ms. Song’s daughter, Sourn Sovanry, said she was now in hiding after evading the police when they came to her house to take them in for questioning. She denied having any relationship with her brother’s group.
“My mother and I do not engage with any anti-government movement,” she said. “We never knew about, touched or saw any anti-election shirts, or any other People Power Movement material.”
She identified Mr. Serey Bunlong, one of the charged men, as her cousin.
In an email, KPPM president Mr. Serey Ratha called on foreign embassies in Cambodia to help his family and condemned the arrests of the three “KPPM activists” as a breach of their political rights.
“The T-shirts of KPPM and message on the back is not violat[ing] or breaking the laws in Cambodia because it is not [a] crime, but in fact it is political awareness,” he said. “Cambodia has no law against any group of politics who [is] anti-election.”
Mr. Serey Ratha said the KPPM has ordered up “thousands” of the shirts to distribute across the country and to its supporters in Malaysia, South Korea and Thailand, among the most popular destinations for Cambodia’s migrant workers.
He called his group a “civil political movement” and dismissed Mr. Hun Sen’s claims of violent intentions.
“If KPPM is [a] terrorist organization, how come KPPM [has] our base on the U.S. land for mission and action?” he said.
Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said there was no evidence to date that the group had engaged in any wrongdoing.
“There is no indication so far this group is conducting criminal activities,” she said. “The arrest of these individuals is yet another example of the restrictions on freedom of expression.”
“It is not against national or most international election laws to abstain from voting. In some countries it is mandatory to vote unless you have specific reasons, but not in Cambodia,” she added.
Both of the county’s leading independent election monitoring groups also said that the T-shirts were not a breach of the election law, which only lets authorities punish anyone who “disrupts the polling process” or “disturbs the polling.”
“This is the right of the people, they can vote or not vote. He [Mr. Serey Ratha] just shows his opinion, so it is not a challenge to the law,” said Puthea Hang, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia.
Sok Sam Oeun, who heads the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, said that there was no clear evidence to make the KPPM out to be a terrorist group.
But Mr. Sam Oeun was not so sure about the legality of the anti-election shirts.
“Their act is not only speech, they broadcast in public,” he said. “It discourages the people not to go to vote, so I think this disturbs the voting.”
But words like “disturb” and “disrupt” were rather vague, he added.
“Maybe the law [is] not clear enough,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.