By Rozanna Latiff
KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian authorities have detained two Cambodian opposition activists while they were waiting to board a flight to Thailand in what is seen as part of a crackdown on exiled dissidents in Southeast Asia, a rights groups said late on Tuesday.
Authorities in Malaysia, along with Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, have been accused by rights groups of detaining and returning critics of neighbouring governments, even those with political refugee status with the United Nations.
The two Cambodians, who include an asylum seeker, were detained on Monday night and were to be deported to their home country the following afternoon. Malaysia's home ministry and immigration department withdrew the order after an appeal, said Jerald Joseph of the Malaysian Human Rights Commission.
"Right now we are trying to visit them in detention as well as determine their status. But we are glad the ministry chose not to deport, I think that's a good sign," Jerald, a commissioner at the agency, told Reuters.
Jerald said they did not know on what grounds the initial deportation order was issued.
Malaysia's home ministry, immigration department and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees did not respond to requests for comment. Malaysia's foreign ministry declined to comment.
Human Rights Watch deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson, said the two detainees are members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) that has been outlawed by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's government.
Rights group Amnesty International said sending the two Cambodians back could put them at "risk of serious human rights violations".
"We call on the authorities to immediately release the two opposition activists, and ensure they are not deported back to Cambodia where they face arbitrary arrest and detention,” Amnesty said in a statement.
Reuters was not immediately able to contact Cambodian authorities.
Cambodia has arrested at least 48 opposition activists this year for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government before the planned return from self-exile of Sam Rainsy, founder of the dissolved CNRP, on Saturday.
Hun Sen's government deployed troops along its borders in response to Rainsy's announcement of his planned return.
Rainsy fled to France four years ago following a conviction for criminal defamation in which he was ordered to pay $1 million in compensation. He also faces a five-year prison sentence in a separate case.
He has previously said it was legitimate to seek to topple Hun Sen because the prime minister has created a one-party state and was not prepared to hold free and fair elections.
(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff, additional reporting by A. Ananthalakshmi in Kuala Lumpur and Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh; Writing by Joseph Sipalan; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Paul Tait)