Cambodian court summons members of defunct opposition party

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A court in northwestern Cambodia has summoned for questioning more than two dozen regional members of the defunct opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, accusing them of engaging in politics even though their party was dissolved by the Supreme Court a year and a half ago.

The action was criticized Wednesday by New York-based Human Rights Watch, which called for the court in Battambang province to cease such actions immediately.

"The Cambodian government continues to harass numerous opposition officials in the courts and to threaten them with prison time long after the main opposition party was unjustifiably disbanded," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an emailed statement. "The government should immediately end the political harassment campaign against the CNRP and drop this latest batch of absurd court cases."

The Supreme Court on Nov. 16, 2017, ordered the opposition party dissolved on the unsupported pretext that it conspired with the United States to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen's government, a move seen as a government effort to ensure it won last July's general election. Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party ended up sweeping all 125 National Assembly seats.

Because they considered the elections neither free nor fair, some Western nations applied diplomatic sanctions against Hun Sen's government. The European Union has set in motion a process to withdraw special trade privileges from Cambodia unless it takes measure to improve civil and human rights. Hun Sen has decried these actions and blamed the opposition for encouraging them instead of reconciling with him.

The court's ruling also banned 118 senior members of the CNRP from political activity for five years, but did not include any of the 26 people summoned in Battambang, who mainly were local officials who just had to leave their jobs. However, the summons issued by Battambang provincial court prosecutor Ky Bunnara accuses those who have been called in for meetings over the next few weeks of acting against the Supreme Court ruling.

More senior party members have faced tougher action.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has issued arrest warrants for eight leading members of the CNRP in exile on charges of conspiring to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony. All eight leaders left Cambodia ahead of the July 2018 election after a widespread crackdown on the political opposition, independent media and nongovernmental organizations.

Party co-founder and former co-leader Sam Rainsy has a stack of convictions and charges against him, all of which he and his supporters say are politically inspired. He has stayed abroad since late 2015 to avoid going to prison.

The party's co-founder, Kem Sokha, was arrested in September 2017 on treason charges on the basis of several-year-old videos showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups. He is under what amounts to house arrest, with his outside contacts tightly restricted.

Sin Rozeth, a former commune chief in Battambang province, said she would go to court for questioning on Thursday.

"I am not scared and I will go to clarify matters because I did not commit any wrongdoing according to the law," she said by phone.

She also said she and the others summoned for questioning were not barred by the Supreme Court's ruling from posting online comments or talking about politics.