Four senior officials of local rights group Adhoc and a National Election Committee (NEC) official were arrested by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) on Thursday night over allegations that they instructed an alleged mistress of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha to deny their affair.
The five are the latest casualties of what political analysts have described as a wave of intimidation unleashed by the government in advance of the next election cycle.
Speaking to reporters on Friday morning, ACU Chairman Om Yentieng said that all five—Adhoc senior investigator Lim Mony; the group’s head of monitoring, Ny Sokha; his deputies Nay Vanda and Yi Soksan; and NEC deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya, who is also Ny Sokha’s predecessor—were arrested at the ACU’s Phnom Penh headquarters at 8 p.m. on Thursday.
“We arrested five people, including four Adhoc officials and one NEC official,” Mr. Yentieng said.
He said they had been arrested for “corruption” but refused to be more specific, adding that the five were still in custody at the ACU compound.
The rights workers were questioned by the ACU for a second day on Thursday after 25-year-old hairdresser Khom Chandaraty admitted to having had an affair with Mr. Sokha under questioning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last week and later accused the group of having convinced her to deny it.
She also accused Adhoc lawyer Try Chhuon, women’s rights advocate Thida Khus, U.N. official Sally Soen and opposition commune chief Seang Chet of having persuaded her to lie. Mr. Chet was jailed on bribery charges on Wednesday for allegedly paying Ms. Chandaraty $500 to deny the affair.
Mr. Yentieng said on Friday that the ACU did not arrest Ms. Chhuon or Ms. Khus—who were also questioned by the ACU on Thursday—because they had not committed any offense.
“Thida Khus and a lawyer [Ms. Chhuon], their answers were clearer than the answers of the accused,” he said. “We believe their answers—that they were not involved.”
The ACU chairman said Mr. Soen, an official at the U.N.’s local human rights office, who did not appear for questioning on Thursday, could be brought to the ACU’s headquarters by force if he refused to heed future summonses.
“If we summon him and he doesn’t come to answer, we will issue a warrant to bring him in,” Mr. Yentieng said.
The ACU has until 8 p.m. on Saturday to question the detainees before sending them the municipal court, he added.
The decision to arrest Mr. Chakrya and the four Adhoc officers came under fire from political analysts and rights groups on Friday, who said the government was reverting back to its tried-and-tested attempts to intimidate those they perceived as flying the flag of the opposition CNRP.
“The government is manufacturing a crisis to go after ADHOC, which is a human rights group that has consistently exposed wrongdoing by government officials,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in an email.
“This is pure intimidation of civil society, it’s clear that Hun Sen wants to put ADHOC out of business, or so badly damage them that they never dare challenge the CPP or the government again.”
Mr. Robertson said the ruling CPP was employing old tactics to muzzle the CNRP ahead of upcoming elections.
“The CPP is [baring] its fangs at civil society, showing that it can attack and destroy any NGO it wants whenever it wants,” he said.
“It seems that in advance of the 2017 commune elections and the 2018 nation-wide elections, the CPP is going back to its old tactics of spreading fear and intimidating those who have demanded an end to the government’s rights abuses, and sought accountability and justice for victims whose rights have been violated.”
Ou Virak, a prominent political analyst who was sued for defamation by the CPP this past week after criticizing the government in an interview, also said the ruling party was reverting to using an iron fist to pressure the opposition.
“I think this is pretty clear. If you look at it, it seems to be a lot of attempts to put pressure on the opposition—and I think in the hope that the opposition will have an internal conflict,” he said.
Mr. Virak said the motives behind the pursuit of Mr. Soen, the U.N. official, were less clear, and that the move could backfire if it attracted the attention of the organization’s upper echelons.
“In a strange way, it’s actually a good thing in disguise, because I think it will be getting U.N. attention from the highest level because I think the U.N. cannot just allow the harassment of one of its staff,” he said.
According to the 1946 Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the United Nations, U.N. officials are “immune from legal process in respect of words spoken or written and all acts performed by them in their official capacity.”
Adhoc president Thun Saray said on Friday that he was dismayed by the arrests of some of his most experienced staff members and affirmed that the rights group had always acted impartially.
“I think it’s very unfair for my colleagues. They didn’t do anything wrong, according to my knowledge. I think it’s threatening the spirits of the human rights activists. For 25 years, we have tried to educate the people, the police, government officials, and provide legal advice to many people.”