Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha delivered a speech on Tuesday thanking CNRP supporters for preventing authorities from arresting him, as police in a number of provinces detained opposition officials for collecting thumbprints for a new petition to the king.
Mr. Sokha has not left the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district since May 26, when armed police stormed the area around the building and stopped his wife’s car, apparently believing him to be inside, in an attempt to arrest him for failing to turn up in court.
A fluctuating group of lawmakers, bodyguards, monks and supporters have kept vigil outside the building since, and the CNRP has warned of mass protests in Phnom Penh if police arrest Mr. Sokha.
“I want to thank all brothers and leaders of the CNRP who have struggled and committed to demand rights and justice, as well as people, in particular, who demand the protection of lawmakers’ immunity,” Mr. Sokha said during a Buddhist ceremony at the headquarters.
“I understand the struggles of the people who have come from remote areas, and the monks who have stayed here every day,” he said. “I appreciate that people…are making such large sacrifices.”
“And if the obstacles get bigger, then the people will show their sacrifices even more.”
Mr. Sokha has been provisionally charged with failing to appear in court for questioning when called to court as a witness in a sex scandal that the government has been prosecuting against him for three months now.
He enjoys immunity from prosecution as a lawmaker, but the CPP’s 68 lawmakers last week decided it did not cover him for failing to show in court, citing an exception that allows arrests when a lawmaker is caught in the act of committing a crime.
Mr. Sokha has again been summoned to court on June 14—to answer a new summons for questioning on his refusal to appear in court last year—but the CNRP has said he will again not appear. It is not clear when—or if—Mr. Sokha plans to leave CNRP HQ.
On May 30, the CNRP delivered a petition along with what it said was more than 170,000 thumbprints calling for King Norodom Sihamoni to intervene to stop the CPP’s recent wave of repression. More than 20 critics of the ruling party have been jailed in the past year alone.
The government is investigating that petition over claims of thumbprint fraud, not believing so many prints could have been collected such a short time.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said in a speech Sunday, however, that police had tried to prevent some officials from collecting thumbprints for that petition, and claimed 1 million prints would have been gathered otherwise. He said provincial party leaders would deliver thumbprints for a new petition on June 13.
On Tuesday, opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang police harassment was happening more frequently this time around, with CNRP officials often stopped by authorities.
“It’s happening in all of the provinces—the authorities trying to prevent us—but we have seen recently that they just detain people for one or two hours, and take the documents,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.
“Where’s the law to say that collecting thumbprints or making a petition is wrong?” he added. “So they cannot detain them for very long.”
Another CNRP lawmaker, Cheam Channy, named the provinces of Koh Kong, Kompong Thom, Siem Reap, Kompong Speu and Takeo as the hotspots of such police activity since Friday, saying he was aware of several activists detained in each.
“Their purpose has been to take the thumbprints. They think we are forcing people to give the thumbprints,” Mr. Channy said.
One CNRP activist, 63-year-old Ing Ung from Koh Kong, said he was arrested on Monday while driving his motorbike to the provincial party headquarters in Khemera Phoumint City.
“At about 4 p.m. after I had collected 20 thumbprints and I was on my way to my office, there were about 10 police who detained me and sent me to the city police station to question me,” Mr. Ung said.
“They took all the thumbprints and I made a contract with them—they asked me to stop doing this.”
Koh Kong provincial governor Bun Leut said that the opposition officials were acting secretively and trying to hide their petitioning from the authorities, leading police to become suspicious.
“We were only checking on them. They work very quietly. How can we let them do this?” Mr. Leut asked. “If authorities know nothing about this until they complete their plans to make disorder in public, who will be the one who responds to this issue?”
Kompong Speu provincial governor Vey Samnang acknowledged his authorities also detained some CNRP activists over the past few days but said it was only to stop them from tricking people.
“We never detain them, but we only educate them when they go out to the places to collect thumb prints,” Mr. Samnang said, claiming the CNRP was preying on illiterate villagers who did not know what they were supporting by endorsing the petitions.
“If they were nearly drowning in a hole would you let them fall in?” he asked. “They can’t even write their names, so it’s easy to incite them to do that.”
Mr. Sovann, the CNRP spokesman, denied the claims the party was tricking the illiterate, and said orders from the top were to explain the petition in detail to anyone interested.
“The people who give the thumbprints, they support it. If they need us to read out the petition, we read it. Our commune councillors, they appeal to people, but do not force them,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)