With less than two weeks to go before the June 4 elections, Battambang’s O’Char commune chief candidate Sin Chan Pov Rozet has something bigger to worry about than the campaign: her freedom.
The 31-year-old politician, who in 2012 became a second deputy commune chief after an upstart campaign, is one of a handful of opposition candidates who have found themselves swept up in court cases that they say are politically motivated.
With a crowd of more than 100 supporters in tow, and many more joining along the way, Chan Pov Rozet yesterday set out from the opposition party office to the Battambang Provincial Court in response to a summons. “I am not scared or nervous,” Chan Pov Rozet said. “If they do [arrest me], it will be up to the people to decide if they want to vote for me.”
Chan Pov Rozet is accused of obstructing the implementation of a court order in a local land dispute between a police officer and the commune.
The case stems from a December court order that instructed commune officials to hand over a plot of land, where a kindergarten once stood, to officer Sao Buntith on the grounds the land belonged to his grandmother and had been lent to the commune in 1984 to build a school.
With the premises in disuse, Buntith was constructing a fence around the plot of land when villagers protested in the hope that the land could be turned into another school or health centre.
Chan Pov Rozet has maintained that she was present at the January 16 protest but only to monitor it in her capacity as a commune official. Thus far, the court has seen it differently, first summonsing her for questioning, and then naming her a suspect.
Buntith reiterated yesterday that he had not filed the complaint against Chan Pov Rozet and was not linked to the allegations against her.
“I just want to get the land in a peaceful manner. I don’t want to get it through violent means,” he said.
The dispute seems to have taken on outsize proportions, however. The presence of Phnom Penh protest regulars and Boeung Kak residents Nget Khun and Luon Sovath – who is also a monk – and CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua lent yesterday’s show of support a charged atmosphere and hinted at the case’s reverberations outside of Battambang.
On high alert yesterday, security personnel seemed to have anticipated the support for Chan Pov Rozet. Authorities blockaded the road, with around 30 police officials manning the street, preventing motos and cars from passing.
“I am surprised that the court has decided to do this during the election time,” Sovath said.
After 30 minutes of questioning by court Prosecutor Pang Chan Soyutheara, Chan Pov Rozet exited from a rear entrance before greeting supporters at the office of her lawyer, Meas Samnang, who assured the courthouse crowd that Pov Rozet had not been arrested.
“I requested the prosecutor ignore the complaint against me,” she said. “They will inform us after all suspects are questioned.”
Prosecutor Chan Soyutheara said the court had concluded Chan Pov Rozet’s questioning and would decide on the next course of action. “We will call a few more suspects to question,” he said.
With the rain beginning to fall, the visibly relieved commune candidate went back to campaign mode.
“Long life for the brave leader of O’Char people,” a supporter shouted, as Chan Pov Rozet led the crowd back home.
While seemingly resolved until after the elections, the case has become somewhat of a lightning rod in the sleepy commune, as Chan Pov Rozet has alleged judicial harassment – especially given that the summons date was four days into the election campaign period.
Her case is one of many the opposition party members and supporters have faced, with around 30 either charged or convicted over the last four years.
Senior leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have both faced convictions in what are widely considered politically trumped-up charges.
Meanwhile, former lawmakers Um Sam Ath and Hong Sok Hour have been convicted of crimes linked to remarks on border issues with Vietnam, and around 20 CNRP activists have been jailed for their involvement in post-election demonstrations at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.
These legal actions, facilitated by a weak judiciary, have been condemned across the board, and observers contend they are intended to weaken the opposition ahead of the 2017 and 2018 elections.
Long projected as a rising star in the CNRP’s grassroots, Chan Pov Rozet was able to ascend only to second deputy commune chief in the 2012 commune elections. However, the court case seems to have actually bolstered her hopes for the top job.
A day before her summons, the candidate held a forum with Sochua. Standing atop a stage with a large poster of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, the two urged the crowd to keep Chan Pov Rozet’s work over the last five years in mind when they go to the polling station. But the case remains prominent in their pitch to the villagers.
“When we help them [villagers], we get charged. So how can authorities then help the people?” Pov Rozet said to cheers.
“If the court arrests Sin Chan Pov Rozet, the CNRP will win all of the commune in Battambang town,” said Sochua.
Less than a kilometre away, CCP commune chief candidate Meach Sophal was winding down after a day of campaigning. The 65-year-old is not the incumbent, having replaced the previous chief, who has since been relegated to second place in the CPP ballot list.
Sophal has strong opinions about the opposition’s use of the Chan Pov Rozet case, saying that the CNRP has made a habit of painting itself as a victim.
“This is their trick. In this case, they may want to accuse the CPP of blocking their way, but [it doesn’t] at all,” he said.
Though soft-spoken, Sophal did not mince his words – the court was working independently of any consideration about the elections and any accusation of targeting the opposition during the campaign was unfounded.
“Actually, the Rozet case is an individual case, not even a political case. If they link it to politics, it is just their trick and normal for the opposition do,” he said.
He says the ruling party has not fallen trap to making this election about Chan Pov Rozet, instead using its “old-time” strategy of promoting party policies and highlighting the achievements of the past five years, not on focusing on Chan Pov Rozet’s alleged legal transgression.
Sochua, though, insisted that the case was more than a commune issue, and that her campaign visits have suggested that it resonated across Battambang town’s 10 communes.
Most importantly, she said, it was yet another example of the consistent judicial harassment faced by the opposition in recent years.
“When they go to court they don’t have a chance,” she said. “We are rallying for her, it is symbolic.”