Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A court has issued arrest warrants for top Cambodian opposition politicians living abroad, as the exiled activists began preparations to return to the country.
Sam Rainsy, the founder of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was one of the politicians accused of incitement to commit a felony and plotting to commit treason. Warrants were also issued for CNRP vice-presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang as well as five others.
The CNRP was controversially dissolved in 2017 on accusations of trying to overthrow the Cambodian government, despite virtually no evidence to support such a claim, say activists. CNRP cofounder and then-president Kem Sokha was arrested for treason on similarly flimsy pretences.
The pre-election banishment allowed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win what was essentially an uncontested election, garnering all 125 seats in the National Assembly and extending Prime Minister Hun Sen‘s 33-year grip on power.
“Hun Sen is taking Cambodia to a really dark place,” Sochua said in a recent interview with Al Jazeera.
Sochua and others fled the country during the crackdown, while Rainsy has lived abroad to avoid politically tinged charges since 2015.
The political repression, which was accompanied by the dismantling of Cambodia’s free press, has been roundly condemned by Western powers. In response, the European Union has begun the process of withdrawing its preferential trade agreement with Cambodia – the Everything But Arms (EBA) deal that allows Cambodia to export products other than weapons at discounted tariff rates. The United States is also considering revoking a similar trade agreement.
The Cambodian government’s attack on democracy has coincided with a shift towards China. While Western powers have criticised the move, the regional superpower continues to offer unconditional support to an increasingly authoritarian Cambodia.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment when contacted by Al Jazeera and a spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior did not immediately respond to requests for an interview.
Sochua warned that Hun Sen was willing to sacrifice the welfare of millions of its people and Cambodia’s sovereignty in order to preserve his own personal wealth and his grip on power.
Recently, Rainsy announced he would return to Cambodia, initially pledging to arrive by the Khmer New Year in mid-April. He has since put back that deadline, claiming there was no point in returning only to be arrested or killed.
Phil Robertson, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the warrants should be considered a pre-emptive attempt to block Rainsy and Sochua’s return.
“PM Hun Sen is trying to slam the door on these leading members of the CNRP ever being able to return to Cambodia,” Robertson said in an email to Al Jazeera, adding the entire “politically motivated” crackdown on the CNRP was based on fabricated accusations.
Robertson said that returning at this juncture would put their freedom and even their lives in jeopardy.
“The government is putting these opposition leaders on notice that if they enter Cambodia, they will certainly face immediate arrest, a long period of pre-trial detention, and then a kangaroo court trial where evidence is not necessary for a conviction,” wrote Robertson, adding such a sentence could prove fatal given the dire conditions of Cambodia’s prisons.
However, Sochua, who is in charge of the planning committee for the return, thinks the CNRP leaders will eventually be back in Cambodia.
“The plan is not being taken off the shelf, we will move forward,” she said.
Sochua said they wouldn’t let legal threats intimidate them from returning, but added that the details and logistics of their arrival were still being hammered out.
“We can be arrested, we can even be shot down on the tarmac, who knows,” she said.
The warrants come as the EU is preparing to send a fact-finding team to assess the human rights situation in Cambodia. While the process of withdrawing the EBA has already begun, the EU can halt its suspension if it believes the Cambodian government is showing signs of progress.
“These charges are the equivalent of PM Hun Sen throwing sand in the face of the European Union and its EBA negotiators due in the country next week,” Robertson said.
“Hun Sen is showing he’s solely interested in maintaining power at any cost, even if that means hurting the economy by this spiteful action that will make it harder to maintain EBA trade privileges for Cambodian exports.”
European political scientist Astrid Noren-Nilsson said that all eight politicians would likely face arrest should they return. She said that she didn’t expect Cambodians to react strongly, based on the current political climate.
“It is highly unlikely that this would prompt significant protests, but it would nonetheless open up for quite complicated scenarios,” she said via email, explaining the outcome would be hard to predict.
Noren-Nilsson also said that both sides were looking at the international situation from a strategic point of view and playing “mind games” with each other.
She said the opposition leaders’ initial plan to return should be seen as an attempt to take advantage of the increased scrutiny on the Cambodian government during the EBA withdrawal process.
“The government is now responding that it will not cede ground – status quo will be maintained,” she said.
However, opposition leader Sochua had a different take on the situation. She said that Hun Sen was using his political enemies as “bargaining chips” with the EU.
She expected the prime minister would offer concessions to the EU by releasing some political prisoners and offer pardons while refusing to make meaningful changes.
“Hun Sen is a chess player, however, we cannot allow Hun Sen to play chess with democracy,” she said.