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Cambodia activists urge release of unionist accused of inciting unrest

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: Cambodian opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua (R) of the Sam Rainsy Party is greeted by Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Teachers Independence Association, after a news conference at the party headquarters in Phnom Penh July 15, 2010. Mu Sochua told journalists that she will not pay the fine and compensation of about $4000, that has been ordered by the court, to Prime Minister Hun Sen after being convicted of defaming the premier. She said she is willing to serve time in prison, accusing the judiciary system of being not independent, but a political tool wielded by Hun Sen's ruling party. Her deadline to pay will end today, making the arrest likely to happen today or tomorrow. REUTERS/Chor Sokunthea (CAMBODIA - Tags: CRIME LAW CIVIL UNREST POLITICS)/File Photo

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Scores of activist groups in Cambodia urged the government on Monday to release and drop charges against a prominent union leader, who was arrested last week and accused of falsely claiming that land had been ceded to neighbouring Vietnam.

Rong Chhun, a border activist and top trade union leader, was arrested on Friday and charged with incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest, which could see him jailed for two years if convicted.

Cambodia has for centuries fretted about territorial encroachments by Vietnam to the east and Thailand to the west. The issue is highly emotive and many Cambodians are suspicious and resentful of both neighbours.

The government’s border affair committee said Rong Chhun had made a false July 20 statement that Cambodian farmers had lost land to Vietnam in a recent border post demarcation, and that Vietnamese authorities had evicted Cambodian villagers.

Rong Chhun denied making the remarks or stirring up trouble, according to his lawyer. It was his third arrest, the first time in 2005 over a border issue and again in 2014 after a protest.

“After more than a decade of harassment by authorities, this latest arrest of a respected union leader is a direct threat to every Cambodian who exercises their constitutional right to freely express their beliefs without having to fear a midnight visit by police and years lost in prison,” said a statement by 141 civil society groups.

A protest also took place on Monday over his arrest, which comes amid a broad crackdown in Cambodia on the opposition, civil society and the media that began in the run-up to a 2018 election.

Var Kimhong, border committee chairman, said Rong Chhun was “distorting the truth”, while government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia and Vietnam were making good progress with joint border demarcation.

“The arrest of Rong Chhun is good news that Cambodia will achieve a peaceful and prosperous borderline,” Phay Siphan said.

Editing by Martin Petty