A woman who fled Cambodia to avoid prosecution for throwing a shoe at a billboard of Prime Minister Hun Sen has been arrested in Thailand and is at imminent risk of deportation, according to a lawyer and human rights groups.
A Thai court found Sam Sokha, a Cambodian labour rights activist, guilty of overstaying her visa in early January, despite the UN refugee agency’s (UNHCR) recognition of her status as a refugee, her lawyer Koreeyor Manuchae told Al Jazeera on Wednesday.
Sokha was handed a suspended sentence and a fine, but was being held at an immigration dentention centre in the Thai capital, Bangkok, Manuchae said, where the 38-year-old activist reported receiving a visit from Cambodian officials who pressured her to return.
“But deporting her to Cambodia is like sending her to her death,” Manuchae said, adding that Sokha was “very worried”.
Sokha’s detention is the latest in Thailand’s “long and chequered record of violating the human rights of refugees,” said Olof Blomqvist, a spokesman for Amnesty International.
Thailand, which hosts more than 100,000 refugees, is not party to the international convention on refugees, he said, and treats any refugee living outside of designated camps on the Thai border with Myanmar as an undocumented immigrant.
Without legal status, refugees living in urban areas in and around Bangkok are often subject to arrest and deportation, according to rights groups.
Crackdown in Cambodia
Sokha has been living in Bangkok since April last year.
She fled Cambodia after the police there launched an investigation into a video clip on Facebook, which shows her throwing a shoe at the image of Hun Sen on a billboard of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). She throws a second shoe at the picture of Hun Sen’s party colleague, National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
“This person, when will he stop destroying the nation?” she is heard saying in the video, which was widely shared on social media. In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post newspaper at the time, Sokha said she posted the video because she was “hurt” by Hun Sen’s leadership.
“My aunt’s land was grabbed. And they arrested and jailed my brother and he even could not find an attorney.”
Shortly afterwards, prosecutors pressed charges of “insulting a public official” and “incitement” against her. The offences carry a three year jail term.
The move against Sokha came amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent in Cambodia. Opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with “treason and espionage” later in September.
That same month, nearly a dozen radio stations were forced off the air, and the Cambodia Daily newspaper also stopped publishing over allegations of tax evasion. Weeks later, in November, the country’s Supreme Court dissolvedKem Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), leaving the ruling party unopposed in parliament and ahead of general elections later this year.
The crackdown has forced several CNRP members of parliament into exile, with many seeking refuge in Thailand.
In a statement last week, Amnesty said the dissidents, as well as other asylum seekers and refugees have reported “increased surveillance, harassment and intimidation” by Thai police officers and Cambodian agents.
Sokha’s arrest has prompted widespread fear in Bangkok’s refugee community, activists said.
A Vietnamese dissident, A Ga, who fled political and religious persecution in his country, was also arrested and sentenced along his wife and 10-year-old-son earlier this month, and is being held at the same facility as Sokha.
‘Failure to protect people in need’
Human rights groups said Thailand, in recent years, has forcibly returned more than a hundred refugees and asylum seekers based on the requests of foreign governments.
These include the repatriation of M. Furkan Sokmen, a Turkish national alleged to have links to an exiled cleric that Turkey accuses of being behind a failed coup attempt in July 2016, and the return of 109 people of the persecuted Uighur Muslim minority to China in 2015, according to Human Rights Watch.
Blomqvist, the Amnesty spokesman, said Thailand “has often completely ignored the principle of non-refoulement, an absolute prohibition in international law on sending refugees back to territories where they could face human rights violations.
“Whether by denying safe harbour to boats carrying desperate Rohingya refugees, or sending activists back to countries like Bahrain and China, where they could face torture, Thai authorities routinely failed to protect people in need.”
A Thai immigration official meanwhile confirmed that Cambodian authorities were interested in Sokha’s case, but dismissed the claim that Cambodian officials had paid a visit to the activist at Bangkok’s Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Facility.
“There were requests from the country of origin,” the official, who did not want to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media, told Al Jazeera.
He declined to reveal the nature of the request, and said: “If we find they [asylum seekers] violate our laws, we have to follow our process, whether there is a request or not”.
He added: “We haven’t got any date or confirmation of when Sokha will be deported or if we will deport them at all.”
The Cambodian government could not be reached for comment.
A spokesman for the Cambodian foreign ministry, however, told the Phnom Penh Post that he was not aware of any extradition requests.
Papitchaya Boonngok contributed reporting from Bangkok, Thailand