Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Cambodia

Political context

Whilst Cambodia has witnessed impressive economic progress in recent years, considerable improvements are still required in strengthening respect for human rights within the country, particularly regarding the fight against impunity for crimes committed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The executive branch has still not undertaken necessary reforms, in particular in the field of the fight against corruption or improvements in justice administration. Over the last ten years the system has more and more come to resemble that of a single party regime that rejects any responsibility for serious human rights violations, in a context of total absence of rule of law.

Furthermore, in June 2007, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) approved the internal rules of the tribunal created to bring to trial the main leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime, which, for the first time in the history of international criminal justice, recognised the possibility for the victims to join the proceedings as civil parties. However, the tribunal's image was tarnished even before the beginning of the trial, which is planned for April 2008, due to allegations of corruption targeting the Cambodian staff of the tribunal.

Stigmatisation of human rights defenders and serious obstacles to their work

In 2007 the Government made constant attacks on defenders who dared to criticise its human rights policy. For instance, in May 2007, in response to a joint press release from NGOs, including the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights (LICADHO) and the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), expressing their concerns about the numerous human rights violations, the Interior Ministry Spokesman, Mr. Khieu Sopheak, reaffirmed that these organisations exaggerated the situation, explaining that it is their job to criticise the Government and that "if they don't say that things are bad, they don't get paid".

Cambodian defenders are not alone in being criticised by the Government. The UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for human rights in Cambodia, Mr. Yash Ghai, was thus subjected to virulent attacks by the Government throughout the year, just as his predecessors had been. On December 12, 2007, after the fourth official visit of the Special Rapporteur, Prime Minister Mr. Hun Sen indicated that he would no longer meet him, accusing him of being a "long term tourist". The Information Minister added that Mr. Ghai "represented the opposition parties rather than the United Nations". Mr. Ghai was also subject to acts of intimidation: on December 3, 2007, in Ratanakiri province, soldiers and police tried to interrupt a meeting between Mr. Ghai and villagers who denounced the confiscation of their lands, claiming that the Rapporteur had received no written authorisation from the local authorities. His terms of reference, however, allow him to travel freely throughout the Cambodian territory without prior authorisation.

Increased repression of defenders of the right to land, the environment and natural resources

In spite of various promises made by Mr. Hun Sen, multiple attacks on freedoms of expression and assembly continued to occur in 2007, in a context of illegal confiscation of land and massive forcible expulsions. The courts continued to prosecute, arrest and sentence people for crimes related to agricultural disputes, in most cases with no respect for the right to a fair trial. It is also extremely difficult for human rights organisations to document violations that occur during forced evictions. For example, in March 2007, members of ADHOC and the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) were arrested by the police and questioned about why they were observing the eviction of over 100 families at the Angkor temple complex in Siem Reap. They were released one hour later. On November 27, 2007 the police prevented the holding of a public forum in Ratanakiri province, organised by the CCHR to hear the complaints of victims of illegal confiscation of lands in the region. And in 2007, journalists and members of civil society were on several occasions prevented from observing evictions and were kept away from the sites, as occurred with the forced eviction of families in the district of Chroy Chanva in Phnom Penh, on November 7, 2007.

Organisations and defenders who condemn the illegal and abusive exploitation of natural resources, especially forests, were also victims of acts of intimidation and reprisals. For instance, on June 3, 2007, Mr. Khieu Kanharith, the Information Minister, declared that the Government had decided to prohibit the publication of the latest report of the environmental organisation Global Witness, arguing that any copies found inside the country would be confiscated.1 On June 4, 2007, Mr. Hun Neng, Governor of the province of Kompong Cham and brother of the Prime Minister, declared that if members of Global Witness came to Cambodia, he would "hit them until their heads are broken". Moreover, on June 16, 2007, after publishing articles on deforestation in the province of Kompong Thom, Mr. Lem Piseth, a journalist with Radio Free Asia, received death threats by telephone. Mr. Piseth had to leave the country, fearing for his safety. These acts of reprisal sometimes go as far as killing: for example, on July 4, 2007, Mr. Seng Sarorn, a member of the Culture and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA), was killed at his home.

Furthermore, in July 2007, the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia sought to restrict the independence of Cambodian lawyers, particularly those working with NGOs that defend victims of land grabbing. The Bar Association, whose President is close to the Government, declared that lawyers could not be employed by NGOs or provide them with legal aid if the NGOs had not signed a memorandum of understanding with the Bar.2 Furthermore, on June 24, 2007 the Secretary General of the Bar, Mr. Ly Tayseng, publicly declared that the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC), an NGO that provides legal aid to communities threatened with eviction, was operating in violation of "Bar Law" for not having signed such a memorandum. He added that two other NGOs – the Legal Aid of Cambodia (LAC) and the Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) – might also violate this law. The stand taken by the Bar Association has had a particularly damaging effect, with several lawyers preferring to resign from their positions within NGOs. It has also affected the availability of pro bono legal services to the poorest Cambodians, as less and less lawyers are available to provide their services.

Trade union leadership, a high-risk activity

In 2007, trade union leaders were again a favourite target for the authorities, notably because their activities are in opposition to considerable political and economic interests. Most acts of intimidation carried out against them took place during strikes or union demonstrations. An example is the arrest of Mr. Eng Vanna, President of the Free Trade Union of Workers (FTU) of the municipal cable television company in Phnom Penh, Mr. Ly Seng Horn, his Deputy, and Mr. Pol Sopheak, Representative of the Free Trade Union of Workers in the Kingdom of Cambodia (FTUWKC), in Phnom Penh in January 2007 during a demonstration calling for eight of their colleagues to be reinstated in their job, after being sacked in 2006 for forming a union. Union leaders were also subjected to serious physical violence: for instance, Mr. Hy Vuthy, President of FTUWKC at the Suntex factory, was killed in Phnom Penh in February 2007. Mr. Hy is the third FTUWKC member to have been killed in three years. To that extent, it is worth noting that whilst, in April 2007, the Appeal Court upheld the sentences of Messrs. Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun for the murder in 2004 of Mr. Chea Vichea, then President of FTUWKC, this decision was reached at the end of a trial marred by numerous irregularities and despite many proofs of the innocence of both men.3

Repression of defenders of religious freedom

In 2007, the Cambodian Government increased its repression of Khmer Krom monks attempting to defend their religious minority rights and end the persecution of their fellow monks in Viet Nam. Thus, on February 27, 2007, the police violently broke up a demonstration near the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, which had been organised to protest against religious persecution in Viet Nam. In addition, on June 8, 2007, the Ministry of Cults and Religions and Supreme Patriarch Non Nget issued a directive ordering monks to refrain from engaging in peaceful demonstrations, since these would create "disorder". Non Nget added that monks who took part in demonstrations would be "responsible before the law".

In its 346th Report, published in June 2007, the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association also "strongly urge[d] the Government to reopen the investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea and to ensure that Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun may exercise, as soon as possible, their right to a full appeal before an impartial and independent judicial authority", and to "institute immediately independent enquiries into [the murder of Hy Vuthy] [...]". Likewise, the European Parliament "condemn[ed] the killing of Hy Vuthy", "urge[d] the Cambodian authorities to launch an urgent, impartial and effective investigation into the murders of Hy Vuthy, Chea Vichea, [...] and to bring the persons responsible to justice" and "to give Born Sammang and Sok Sam Oeum a prompt retrial which complies with international standards" (See European Parliament Resolution P6_TA (2007) 0085 of March 15, 2007, on Cambodia).

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 This report, entitled Cambodia's Family Trees: Illegal logging and the stripping of public assets by Cambodia's elite, was published on June 1, 2007. It accuses members of the Cambodian elite class, in particular close relations and associates of the Prime Minister, of pillaging natural resources.

2 The stand taken by the Bar Association, which has no legal foundation, was announced shortly after Ms. Keat Kolney, the sister of the Finance Minister, had lodged a complaint, on June 19, 2007, against ten lawyers who were members of two NGOs that had filed a complaint against her in January 2007 for illegal land eviction. The trial received a great deal of media attention. As a result of Ms. Keat's complaint, the Bar began investigating the ten lawyers. By the end of 2007, seven of them had resigned from their NGOs.

3 On April 12, 2007, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia expressed his "deep regret over the decision of the Appeal Court [...] upholding the sentences of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun" and called for an impartial investigation into the murder of Chea Vichea (See United Nations Press Release of April 12, 2007). The International Labour Organisation (ILO) also expressed its grave concern following the decision of the Appeal Court (See Press Release ILO/07/11, ILO statement on appeal hearing for the murder of Chea Vichea, 12 April 2007). [See next page]


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