A court in central Cambodia’s Kampong Speu province has detained a former opposition party council member who recently returned from Thailand, sending her to prison following her arrest without a warrant on Friday, Cambodian sources said.
Kem Tola, a former commune council member for the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was held overnight at the provincial police station before being turned over to the Kampong Speu Provincial Court and put into detention, her sister Kem Sitha told RFA.
“I want her to have her freedom back,” Kem Sitha said, adding that Kem Tola does not yet have a lawyer and that police have not provided any details of charges made against her.
“She returned to Cambodia after having already said she has retired from politics. She returned to Thailand to start a business,” she said.
Kem Tola had been tried in absentia in April and sentenced to a year in prison on a charge of “incitement” after she and other activists had gathered for a meal and posted comments on Facebook supporting the return to Cambodia of CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy, who now lives in self-imposed exile in Paris.
She had fled to Thailand in 2019 after being summoned for questioning over her online posts, but decided to return after Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to CNRP activists living abroad to come back, promising them amnesty if they returned.
No warning was given of her arrest when she came back, Kem Sitha said, adding that local authorities had instead approached Kem Tola to urge her to defect to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Kem Tola refused, though, saying that she wanted only to live a normal life and support her aging parents, she said.
Afraid of losing power
Klaing Bun Lai, a senior CNRP activist now living in Thailand, said that Kem Tola had been arrested because Hun Sen is afraid once again of losing power following the recent announcement by Sam Rainsy of a plan to form a new shadow government, citing the example of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG) formed in opposition to that country’s Feb. 1 military coup.
“Hun Sen is a coward in the political arena. He just uses the law to unjustly persecute activists from the opposition party,” he said.
Kem Tola’s arrest will now cause fresh criticism of the persecution by Hun Sen’s government of political opposition figures, said Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, noting that Kem Tola was arrested only “after she returned in response to a government appeal.”
From the beginning of 2020 to June 2021, authorities of P Hun Sen’s ruling CPP have arrested around 80 political activists, environmental activists, monks, social activists, and members of youth groups, charging them with conspiracy, incitement, and insulting the authorities.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGO’s and the independent media, paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in the country’s 2018 general election.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.