Cambodia: CIVICUS calls on government to release activists after wave of arrests

Protest Cambodia Rong Chhun

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS is extremely concerned by an ongoing crackdown on activists in Cambodia over the last month. A chilling wave of arrests marks an escalation of attempts by the authorities to intimidate activists and silence all forms of dissent and highlights the rapid deterioration of human rights in Cambodia. 

On 31 July 2020, the authorities arrested prominent unionist Rong Chhun for ‘incitement’  after he advocated for the land rights of villagers living near the Cambodia-Vietnam border. Since then, over a dozen activists have been arrested and detained for protesting his arrest On 10 August, activists Chhou Pheng, Chum Puthy and Sar Kanika, were charged with ‘incitement’ under Article 495 of the Criminal Code. 

On 13 August, two activists,  Hun Vannak and Chhouen Daravy, from youth group Khmer Thavrak were also arrested after calling for Rong Chhun’s release. Other members of the youth group have been targeted by the authorities for planned protests; On 6 and 7 September, Buddhist monk Koet Saray and Tha Lavy were arrested while activist Eng Malai was picked up by authorities after leaving the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, where she had raised security concerns. All three were charged with ‘incitement’.

The police also arrested Vice-President of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association (KSILA), Mean Prommony, on 6 September for planning a protest while another member of KLSIA, Muong Sopheak was detained on 11 September.

“The authorities have become so fearful of losing control that anyone who dares to speak out about human rights violations in Cambodia today, including those who question wrongful and arbitrary detentions, could face arrest,” said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.

Despite the risk of arrest and criminalisation, civil society activists have not backed down and continue to play a brave role in speaking up and exposing abuses by state and non-state actors.

On 3 September, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phoung Keorasmey, activists with environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful march to call attention to the filling in of a Phnom Penh lake. They were charged with ‘incitement’ on 6 September.

Rapper Kea Sokun was arrested in Siem Reap on 10 September and charged with incitement under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. Sokun is understood to have been targeted as the result of a song he released in April called ‘Dey Khmer’ (‘Khmer Land’) which is about the politically sensitive topic of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. 

CIVICUS calls on the Cambodian government to cease the judicial harassment of its critics and release these activists immediately and unconditionally.

We are also concerned that the Ministry of Interior is attempting to smear civil society groups Khmer Thavrak and Mother Nature Cambodia as unauthorised organisations. The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, passed in July 2015, has been widely criticised by grassroots groups, unions, NGOs and the United Nations as inconsistent with international human rights law. It criminalises all unregistered groups and makes registration dependent on an unclear and complex bureaucratic process.

“The authorities have for years sought a variety of ways to weaken and dismantle the human rights movement in Cambodia by using a combination of restrictive laws, blatant judicial harassment and at times outright violence. The international community currently convening at the Human Rights Council must take this opportunity to stand side by side with Cambodia civil society and speak up,” said Benedict

Research undertaken by the CIVICUS Monitor shows that laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict civic freedoms, undermine civil society, and criminalize individual’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists are often subject to judicial harassment and legal action. In April 2020, the Cambodian government used the COVID-19 crisis to adopt an unnecessary and draconian state of emergency law that provides the authorities with broad and unfettered powers to restrict freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

Civic space in Cambodia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

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