Today, the ICJ condemned an ongoing and heightened crackdown on civil society activists and human rights defenders in Cambodia, and called on the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) to cease arbitrary arrest and other harassment of individuals for merely exercising their human rights and fundamental freedoms.
From end-July to early this week, at least eleven activists have been arrested and detained on spurious charges in an invigorated attempt by authorities to silence critical dissent in the country.
“The Cambodian authorities in recent days have ratcheted up their abuse of domestic laws to target human rights defenders and perceived critics of the government. We fear that without a robust international response, the situation will only deteriorate further,” said Kingsley Abbott, ICJ Senior Legal Adviser.
“They are now targeting youth in particular, in an apparent bid to curtail their use of social media to amplify dissatisfaction with the ruling regime. Instead of attacking them, the government needs to stop and listen to their people,” he added.
Several arrests have been linked with the detention of prominent union leader, Rong Chhun. On 31 July, Rong Chhun, President of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was arrested at his home in suspected retaliation for comments he had made alleging loss of community land in relation to demarcation of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. He was thereafter charged with “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security,” under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code. He is currently in detention in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 1.
On 13 August, Hun Vannak and Chhouen Daravy, founding members of the Khmer Thavrak youth activist group, were arrested in relation to a rally they had held outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court in support of Rong Chhun. Daravy was reportedly slapped, then grabbed and hit before being pushed into a vehicle during her arrest. Security officials also reportedly beat and kicked at people in the rally to disperse the crowd, injuring about ten individuals.
On 6 September, Buddhist monk Venerable Koet Saray and Mean Prommony, Vice-president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, were arrested in apparent connection with a rally they had been organizing to call for Rong Chhun’s release. On 7 September, Khmer Thavrak activists Tha Lavy and Eng Malai were arrested. Tha Lavy was arrested on arriving at a protest at Freedom Park. Eng Malai was arrested the day she had left the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Cambodia office, where she had raised her security concerns.
Simultaneous arrests of environmental rights activists and a rapper evidence a wider crackdown beyond the case of Rong Chhun. On 4 September, three members of environmental rights group Mother Nature Cambodia, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea and Phuong Keorasmey were arrested. They were thereafter charged with incitement under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code. On the same day, rapper Kea Sokun was arrested in Siem Reap province and similarly charged with incitement, in apparent connection with a popular song he had released on YouTube, concerning land at the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
On 7 September, the Ministry of Interior issued a statement denouncing Khmer Thavrak and Mother Nature Cambodia as unauthorized organizations, calling on the responsible authorities to prosecute them.
The ICJ is concerned that the groups are being targeted for allegedly operating without being registered in accordance with the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations. The requirements under this law are non-compliant with international law and standards that protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, as the ICJ has previously pointed out. The law impermissibly restricts the ability of civil society members to exercise their rights to freedom of association and expression.
The ICJ recalls the responsibility of Cambodia, as expressly stated in the UN Human Rights Defenders Declaration, to “take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.” These rights include, among others, freedoms of expression, opinion, peaceful assembly, association and political participation.
“Far from protecting these rights, the government has been systematically violating them,” said Abbott.
“The recent arrests signal yet another sign of further regression that needs to be called out by the international community, including by partners, missions, UN agencies and financial institutions.”
On 7 September, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia expressed concerns about the recent arrests and also highlighted that she “has been closely following reports that seven different CSOs have been searched or informed of pending visits by the authorities since last week.” Similarly, over the past few days, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders has expressed concern about the crackdown, stating “peaceful protest is not a crime”.
Kingsley Abbott, Senior Legal Adviser, ICJ Global Redress & Accountability Initiative e: kingsley.abbott(a)icj.org
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