Four United Nations experts have written a joint letter to Cambodia’s Foreign Minister expressing concerns over the public intimidation early this year of a local rights group official after he spoke out against the arrests of activists who criticized the government’s coronavirus response.
The U.N. letter in response to arrests in March was released as the wives and family members of jailed activists from Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) continue to stage weekly protests for their freedom—nearly three years after the government launched a crackdown the led to a ban on the opposition party.
On March 31, Prime Minister Hun Sen said at a press conference that Am Sam Ath, the deputy director of Licadho, had criticized the government for arresting people selling fake tests and medicine for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. He alleged that Am Sam Ath’s comments made him criminally liable as an accomplice to the sellers and warned him that he could face arrest.
Hun Sen’s threats came three days after Am Sam Ath said in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service that several arrests of people who have questioned the government’s response to the outbreak were politically motivated, based on pre-existing cases against CNRP members. He also noted that many of the arrests were allegedly carried out without warrants and suggested they were violations of the right to freedom of expression.
In a letter dated May 29, and made public by the U.N. Human Rights Office in Cambodia on Tuesday, four U.N. Special Rapporteurs expressed concerns to Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn that “the public condemnation of and threat to arrest Mr. Am Sam Ath appear directly linked to his work in defense of human rights, and designed to curb the exercise of his right to freedom of expression and his right to defend human rights.”
The Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor; the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Rhona Smith; the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye; and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, also noted “the alleged spreading of false information in regard to comments attributed to him.”
“We are also concerned that such public threats against a human rights defender can have a chilling effect on freedom of expression, freedom of opinion, and space for civil society and media to publicly report information and conduct awareness raising activities during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” the letter said.
“We are further concerned that the alleged threat to Mr. Sam Ath may be contributing to an environment of self-censorship among human rights defenders, for fear of being misinterpreted and facing criminal action for the spreading of false information.”
The U.N. experts called on Prak Sokhonn to respond with details on what measures have been taken to ensure that Am Sam Ath and other human rights campaigners in Cambodia are able to carry out their work, free from fear of threats and harassment.
They also requested information on what measures have been taken so that media and civil society organizations (CSOs) can assist with disseminating information about the coronavirus outbreak and the national response, without facing repercussions.
In a response dated July 14 and also released by the U.N. Human Rights Office in Cambodia on Tuesday, Cambodia’s Permanent Mission to the U.N. at Geneva cited the Ministry of Interior as saying that “any CSO officers, who perform their duties in accordance with the law, including Mr. Am Sam Ath … are accorded with protection against any alleged intimidation,” provided they file an official complaint.
With regard to the COVID-19 outbreak, the Ministry of Interior called on “all stakeholders, including media, to observe steps taken by the government, especially health measures,” while refraining from “engag[ing] in dissemination and exaggeration of any unverified information, which instills fears into the people and results in social unrest and instability.”
In the meantime, Am Sam Ath has continued to speak out against what he views as official abuses, including to RFA on July 24 after authorities violently dispersed the wives and family members of the 17 detained CNRP activists he mentioned in his March 31 interview, as they held a protest in of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court calling for the immediate and unconditional release of their loved ones.
The 17 activists have been held in pretrial detention at Prey Sar Prison on charges of “incitement to commit a felony” since early this year after voicing views critical of Hun Sen’s leadership—accusations rights groups say represent restrictions on their freedom of expression.
Last week’s rally marked the sixth protest organized by the family members—the previous five of which featured police officers confiscating or destroying banners and ordering the crowd to disband.
But Prumh Chantha, the wife of one of the activists, said that this time around 30 of the court’s security guards aggressively dragged the protesters away from the building on the ground, leaving at least five of them injured with cuts and bruises.
On Tuesday, the wives and relatives told RFA they are now seeking assistance from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to file a complaint on their behalf with the international community and to issue a condemnation of the government over the assault.
“The NGOs asked me why I didn’t file a complaint with the court,” said Sok Polyma, the wife of Khem Pheana, former CNRP commune councilor in the capital Phnom Penh.
“I told them that I have lost confidence in the court system. It is very unjust because our husbands are innocent and did not commit crimes as alleged.”
Sok Polyma said that as a representative of the wives and relatives of the detainees, she filed a complaint on Tuesday with both Licadho and another local rights group, Adhoc. She said she also spoke with the groups to obtain advice on how to hold a legal protest and to ask that they monitor future demonstrations, including one planned for Friday.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin told RFA that the guards didn’t prevent the CNRP family members from protesting but said the wives and other relatives had violated the law by “abusing the guards’ security protocol.”
“People have the right to protest but they cannot interfere with the court system,” he said.
“[They can protest] as long as it will not affect public order and violate the rights of other people.”
Adhoc spokesman Soeung Sen Karona, who monitored last week’s protest, said the family members had “protested peacefully and according to the law.” He added that the protests will grow if the court does not resolve the issue.
“The court must quickly intervene and release [the CNRP activists] to they can be free to reunite with their families,” he said. “These cases are not criminal; they are purely political motivated.”
CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government with the help of the U.S. government and the Supreme Court banned his party in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
The EU in mid-February announced plans to suspend tariff-free access to its market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on democracy and human rights—a move that would reinstate tariffs on garments and footwear beginning Aug. 12, unless it is overturned by the bloc’s governments or its parliament.
Hun Sen has said that EU demands to maintain the EBA, which include dropping charges of treason against Kem Soka and reinstating the CNRP, are unreasonable and an encroachment on Cambodia’s internal affairs.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.