Cambodia wants Thailand to hand over opposition figure

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia intends to seek the extradition from Thailand of the head of an anti-government organization who was convicted in absentia on terrorism charges in 2013, the government said Thursday.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government is preparing an official request to Thailand to have it extradite Sam Serey, head of the Khmer National Liberation Front, after he finishes any jail term there.

Sam Serey, who lives in Denmark, was reportedly detained in Thailand on Wednesday for overstaying his visa.

Sam Serey was sentenced by a Cambodian court in 2016 to nine years in prison after 10 members of his group were arrested for carrying out a non-violent protest at the Vietnamese Embassy in the Cambodian capital. Prime Minister Hun Sen accused him of also plotting bombings during this month's recent traditional New Year's celebration, but there were no incidents.

Further accusations against Sam Serey were made in a dossier released by Cambodia's Interior Ministry. In addition to alleging he had been plotting bombings, it accused him of raising an army in Norway, holding a "secret" meeting with an alleged American CIA agent and being involved in a failed 2007 bombing of the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument in Phnom Penh.

This week, Sam Serey featured in a government propaganda video seeking to connect him to other opposition figures described as "terrorists" seeking to topple the government.

He has denied all allegations of planning or advocating violence.

Cambodia is to hold a general election in July, which Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party is expected to win handily since the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the only credible opposition party, was dissolved by court order last year and its lawmakers expelled from parliament.

Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than three decades, this week repeated his intention to remain in office for two more terms — 10 more years. Ahead of the polls, he and his party have frequently spoken of the risk of violent unrest allegedly posed by his opponents.

Sam Serey's Khmer National Liberation Front, a fringe group with no mass following, has called Hun Sen an abuser of human rights who should be tried, as well as a puppet of neighboring Vietnam, whose 1978 invasion to topple Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge regime helped install Hun Sen, a Khmer Rouge cadre who earlier defected to Hanoi.

According to reports in the Danish press, Sam Serey has lived in Hundested, Denmark, since 2011 as a political refugee with asylum status.

Asked about Sam Serey's situation in Thailand, the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs said individual cases cannot be discussed because of privacy concerns.

"The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirms that a foreign citizen with permanent residence in Denmark is detained in Thailand," it said in a statement.

Thai Immigration Police chief Suthipong Wongpin said Thursday that he was not aware of Sam Serey's arrest but that arrested suspects must undergo local legal proceedings before they can be extradited.

Sunai Phasuk, a senior Thai researcher for Human Rights Watch, said Sam Serey was detained Wednesday while trying to get his expired Thai visa extended.

He said that Sam Serey would face persecution amounting to violation of his human rights if he is extradited to Cambodia, so that Thailand was under obligation by international customary law not to send him there.

"The Thai government's track record shows that it has always neglected this obligation which is why we are particularly very concerned over Sam Serey's case," he said.

In February, a Cambodian woman who threw a shoe at a billboard depicting Hun Sen was arrested after she was repatriated from Thailand, where the U.N. refugee agency reportedly had formally recognized her as a refugee.

Sunai suggested that the Thai government should deport Sam Serey to Denmark, his country of residence, which would be standard procedure for people who violate visa regulations.

___

Kaweewit reported from Bangkok.

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