One of the opposition’s four appointees to the board of the National Election Committee (NEC) will be put on trial over criminal charges of “intentional violence,” according to a letter obtained on Wednesday.
Rong Chhun, a union leader, was selected by the CNRP to become one of the nine board members of the election body after its establishment in April 2015.
The CPP and CNRP each chose four members and agreed on one “neutral” member under the landmark July 2014 political deal.
Mr. Chhun was charged in September 2014 with “intentional violence” over the nationwide strike of garment workers that was violently repressed by the government earlier that year. On Wednesday, he received notification of a coming trial.
In a letter dated April 26, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge San Sophat said the court had decided to “send this case file to trial.” It did not say when the trial would start.
Court director Taing Sunlay said on Wednesday he was not aware of the letter received by Mr. Chhun. However, asked if such a letter would mean the case was going to trial, he said: “Yes.”
Judge Sunlay referred questions to the case’s investigating judge, Judge Sophat, who could not be reached.
Mr. Chhun said he had received the letter on Wednesday and that the case was related to his past charges over the nationwide strike of garment workers, but reiterated previous claims that he had done nothing wrong.
“It’s the old case file, in which there was a complainant who filed a complaint against me for leading the workers to demand a $160 minimum wage back in 2013 and 2014,” Mr. Chhun said by telephone.
“Of course, when I was questioned at that time, they linked me to the case [of violence at a workers’ strike], but I had no presence there at that time,” he added.
Mr. Chhun said he could not say whether he was being targeted now because of his key role in the new election committee.
Committee for Free and Fair Elections director Koul Panha said he hoped the court would decide to throw out the case against Mr. Chhun.
“I hope the court is going to close his case,” Mr. Panha said, adding that the revised NEC law explicitly states that members cannot be harassed.
“They cannot be harassed by any state authorities. That is clear,” he said. “I don’t believe they will reactivate this. If they do, it’s a real concern—it will affect the independence of the NEC and free and fair elections.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann noted that the body’s deputy secretary-general was already jailed last month and said he was concerned that independent minds on the NEC were being targeted. The NEC’s chairman and secretary-general are both CPP stalwarts.
“My comment is that Rong Chhun did nothing wrong,” he said. “He has served the country and the interests of the workers, and now he is a member of the NEC, the institution that organizes elections.”
“Ny Chakrya has already been arrested, and now Rong Chhun. This is very concerning and could affect free and fair elections,” Mr. Sovann said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said he was not concerned a trial against Mr. Chhun would be seen as a politically motivated move that would infringe upon the July 2014 political deal or the NEC’s independence.
“It is not involved with political issues, or the relationship of the two parties, because it is out of our hands since the NEC was approved by the National Assembly to be an independent institution,” he said.
“It is separate from us. As it is a separate and independent institution, any individual in this institution committing any criminal offense that is against the law on the organization and functioning of the NEC, that individual must be responsible before the law.”
The charges laid against Mr. Chhun related to the 2013 and 2014 nationwide strike of garment workers, which saw the industry shut itself down as workers demanded a monthly minimum wage of $160 instead of the $95 the government decided.
Mr. Chhun was at the time the head of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, and was charged in 2014 with intentional violence, intentional damage, threatening to cause damage and blocking traffic.
He was charged alongside fellow union leaders Ath Thorn, Yaing Sophorn, Morn Nhim, Pav Sina and Chea Mony. Each of these leaders, who constitute five of the biggest names in the labor movement, faces up to 14 years in prison if found guilty, but the case had seemed to be lying dormant until Mr. Chhun’s letter.
The charged union leaders have denied promoting or taking part in any violence during the nationwide strike, which was repressed by the government on January 2 and 3, 2014, when military police killed at least five striking workers and shot dozens more.
The government has recently ramped up its pursuit of critics and opposition figures, jailing an opposition lawmaker, four rights monitors and an NEC official last month, as well as pursuing a U.N. official with criminal charges and a political analyst with accusations of defamation.
Prime Minister Hun Sen also threatened last week to take legal action against newspapers that “distort” his words. A senior Foreign Ministry official told diplomats on May 5 that the arrest of so many CPP critics was necessary to maintain social order.