Rights groups on Monday urged the government to drop its incitement charges against four people arrested last week and accused of plotting to topple the government by handing out yellow roses to security forces and urging them to turn their guns against Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In a joint statement, rights groups Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) said authorities had no credible evidence against any of the suspects.
Police arrested students Tut Chanpanha and Sok Dalis on Thursday while picking up 1,000 roses they were planning to hand out to soldiers and police around Phnom Penh amid rising tensions following last month’s national election.
On the same day, they arrested printing shop owner Lim Lypheng and information technology worker Hy Borin for preparing small stickers to accompany the flowers urging police and soldiers to “turn your guns against the despot.”
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court subsequently charged all four of them with incitement to commit a felony, which carries a sentence of up to two years in jail.
Licadho and the CLEC said Mr. Chanpanha and Ms. Dalis—whose cases are being handled by a Licadho lawyer—had no idea any stickers were meant to accompany the flowers.
“The questioning at the court revealed beyond any doubt that Chanpanha and Dalis only intended to distribute flowers to military personnel, a common campaign activity used throughout the world to promote peace. They never saw or came into any contact with either Lypheng’s shop, Borin or the allegedly inciting stickers,” the statement says.
“In any case, the crime of incitement poses a particular threat to freedom of expression and thus requires extraordinarily compelling evidence of intent and immediacy. The mere printing of offensive stickers does not alone establish the required intent for criminal liability.”
Moeun Tola, who heads CLEC’s labor program, said the arrests—of the two students in particular—were meant to scare young Cambodians away from getting politically involved while the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP struggle to come to an agreement over the July 28 poll, which both claim to have won.
Young Cambodians connecting through social networking sites like Facebook are believed to have played a major role in the opposition’s strong showing at the poll.
“Where is the basis for suggesting that these students, by planning to hand out flowers, had any intent to incite a felony?” Mr. Tola said. “This is just a transparent attempt to frighten Cambodian youth from being politically engaged or active.”
The flowers and stickers were both ordered by a U.S.-based group of Khmer-American dissidents, the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), that has long called for regime change in Cambodia. The government calls it a terrorist organization plotting to topple the regime with a private army but has offered no evidence to back up the claim.
Even so, leading human rights lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, who heads the legal aid NGO Cambodian Defenders Project agreed with CLEC and Licadho that the four should not have been charged.
While the stickers may speak of guns, Mr. Sam Oeun said the “weapons” the KPPM seems to talk about most on its Facebook page and website are the flowers and bottles of water it wanted handed out to soldiers and police.
“So I don’t think it is incitement to commit a crime,” he said.
“It’s really unfair because they don’t have enough evidence for that,” Thun Saray, president of rights group Adhoc, said of the charges.
Like Mr. Tola at CLEC, he said the charges ought to be dropped and were most likely meant to frighten opposition supporters away from the mass demonstrations the CNRP is calling for unless Mr. Hun Sen and his party concede defeat in the election.
“One way, they try to scare the people to [not] protest. Another way, they want to scare the people to [not] join the KPPM,” he said.
Relatives of the four suspects all visited the municipal court Monday hoping to secure their release on bail. But according to Licadho, the investigating judge delayed his decision until today.
Neither the investigating judge nor the court clerk handling the case could be reached for comment.