The crackdown on human rights defenders, media, civil society and the political opposition intensified ahead of elections scheduled for July 2018. The authorities’ misuse of the justice system continued. New criminal charges were brought against serving and former leaders of the main opposition party. The authorities increased pressure on civil society including by conducting surveillance of human rights workers and restricting or shutting down organizations monitoring elections. Media freedom and diversity were dramatically reduced. Human rights defenders continued to be monitored, threatened, arrested and imprisoned. Montagnard asylum-seekers faced forcible return to Viet Nam.
The prospect of a close general election in 2018 led to an unstable political environment and threats to human rights. In February, Sam Rainsy stood down as leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to avoid party dissolution because of his 2016 conviction on criminal charges. The lead-up to the June 2017 commune elections was marked by threatening rhetoric from the Prime Minister and other senior government and military officials. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won control of 70% of communes. In September, the UN Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia for a further two years. On 16 November, the CNRP was dissolved amid allegations of being part of a purported US-funded “colour revolution” to topple the current regime.
Freedoms of expression and association
Harassment of the political opposition and civil society through misuse of the criminal justice system escalated in an apparent attempt to hamper activities ahead of the 2018 general election.1 Amendments to the Law on Political Parties in February and July gave the Ministry of Interior and courts new powers over political parties and barred individuals convicted of a criminal offence from holding leadership positions.
In March, Sam Rainsy was convicted of “defamation and incitement to commit a felony” for claiming on social media that the July 2016 murder of political commentator Kem Ley was an act of “state-sponsored terrorism”. Political commentator Kim Sok was convicted on the same charges in August for allegedly linking the government to the murder in a radio interview. Following the commune elections, the Ministry of Interior ordered a local election monitoring coalition to cease its activities.
In August, the US-based National Democratic Institute was expelled from Cambodia for alleged regulatory violations. Also in August, more than 30 FM radio frequencies were silenced. Radio stations were alleged to have violated their contracts with the government by “overselling” air time to broadcasting programmes from the US-based Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America, as well as Cambodian radio programme Voice of Democracy. In September, the long-running English language newspaper The Cambodia Daily shut down after the authorities gave its publishers 30 days to pay a USD6.3 million tax bill, a move widely viewed as arbitrary. The same month, RFA ceased operations in Cambodia, citing the restrictive media environment. In November, two former RFA reporters were arrested on trumped-up charges of “espionage” and faced up to 15 years in jail.
On 3 September, new CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested at his home in the capital, Phnom Penh, and later charged with “conspiracy with a foreign power” in relation to a 2013 speech in which he discussed international advice he had received regarding democratic change. CPP lawmakers later voted to strip him of the parliamentary immunity he had been granted under the Constitution.
The Ministry of Interior ordered local land rights organization Equitable Cambodia (EC) to suspend its activities for 30 days for alleged regulatory violations. Although the suspension lapsed on 15 November, EC was not allowed to resume activities. At least three individuals were arrested throughout the year for posting comments on Facebook that were regarded by authorities as insulting to the Prime Minister. On 26 November, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights was threatened by the Prime Minister with closure; it was allowed to remain open after investigation by the Ministry of Interior and an announcement by the Prime Minister on 2 December.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders were harassed and prosecuted for their peaceful human rights work. In February, Tep Vanny, a prominent land rights activist from the Boeung Kak Lake community, was convicted of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” in relation to a 2013 protest, and sentenced to two years and six months’ imprisonment. In December, the Supreme Court upheld a six-month prison sentence against Tep Vanny and two other community members stemming from a protest in 2011. Human rights defenders Am Sam Ath and Chan Puthisak were investigated in February for allegedly instigating violence at an October 2016 demonstration in Phnom Penh. They were beaten by para-police during the demonstration; however, their formal complaint of assault appeared to have been ignored.
In June, five serving and former staff members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) were released on bail after being held for more than a year in pre-trial detention on charges of bribing a witness. Three of the five − Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda and Yi Soksan − were arbitrarily denied access to medical care for two months prior to their release. The charges remained pending at the end of the year.
In September, two activists from the environmental organization Mother Nature were arrested while filming sand-dredging boats off the coast of Koh Kong in an attempt to highlight alleged illegal smuggling. They were charged with incitement to commit a felony and making an unauthorized recording.
On 23 March Oeuth Ang was sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of the 2016 murder of prominent political commentator Kem Ley. The trial lasted only half a day. The authorities did not respond to calls for an independent, impartial and effective investigation into the killing of Kem Ley.
Cambodia failed to submit its report, due in October, on implementation of the recommendations of the 2013 UN CEDAW Committee, or to follow up with requested information regarding sexual and gender-based violence – in particular redress and protection for victims. Women continued to be under-represented in politics. Although the number of women commune chiefs elected during the 2017 commune elections increased, the total number of women councillors decreased.
Right to housing and forced evictions
Land grabbing, land concessions granted to private stakeholders for agri-industrial use, and major development projects continued to impact the right to adequate housing for communities around the country. A report released in January by the Land Management Ministry showed an increase in land dispute complaints received in 2016 compared to the previous year. Work on the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam in the northeast province of Stung Treng progressed; Indigenous people who refused to leave their ancestral lands faced forcible relocation. Those who accepted relocation were moved to substandard and flooding-affected resettlement sites.
Refugees and asylum-seekers
The government rejected 29 applications for refugee status by Montagnard asylum-seekers from Viet Nam, who faced possible refoulement. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, stated that they had legitimate grounds. They remained in Cambodia at the end of the year.
In February, the Co-Investigating Judges issued a joint closing order dismissing the case against Im Chaem in Case 004/1 at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC). She was found not to fall within the ECCC’s personal jurisdiction of being a senior leader or one of the most responsible officials during the Khmer Rouge regime.
In June, closing statements were made in a second trial of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in Case 002. The case against them had been severed by the Trial Chamber of the ECCC in 2011, resulting in two trials on different charges. They faced charges of crimes against humanity, genocide and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions.
- Cambodia: Courts of injustice − suppressing activism through the criminal justice system (ASA 23/6059/2017)