Crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly intensified ahead of elections in 2017/2018. The authorities’ misuse of the justice system increased; the security forces continued to harass and punish civil society and silence critics. Human rights defenders were arrested and held in pre-trial detention; several were tried and sentenced, including for previous alleged offences, and others were given suspended sentences or had charges pending against them. Political opposition was targeted, with activists serving long sentences handed down in previous years and new legal action taken against opposition party leaders and others. A prominent political commentator was shot dead and impunity continued for past unlawful killings.
Tensions between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) remained high. The prospect of commune and national elections in 2017 and 2018 respectively created an unstable political environment threatening human rights. From May, CNRP MPs intermittently boycotted the National Assembly in protest at legal action taken against CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha for failing to appear as a witness in a court case. CNRP leader Sam Rainsy remained in self-imposed exile in France; in October the government formally announced that he was banned from returning to Cambodia. He was targeted with a series of criminal charges against him during the year.
In September, 39 states issued a statement at the 33rd UN Human Rights Council meeting expressing concern about the political situation in Cambodia and calling for a “safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders and civil society”.
Freedoms of expression and association
Legal action against the political opposition escalated in an apparent attempt to hamper activities ahead of commune elections in 2017. At least 16 activists and officials from the opposition remained in prison after unfair trials. They included 14 CNRP members who were convicted of leading and/or participating in an “insurrection” related to a demonstration in July 2014. At least two opposition party members were held in pre-trial detention and at least 13 had charges pending against them.
In December, Sam Rainsy and two assistants were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment on charges of being “accomplices” in a 2015 forgery case against opposition party senator Hong Sok Hour, who was convicted in November 2016 on charges of fraud and incitement and given a seven-year prison sentence. Rainsy and the two assistants are in exile in France.
In September, Kem Sokha was sentenced in his absence to five months’ imprisonment for refusing to appear as a witness in the prosecution of two CNRP MPs who were charged with “procurement of prostitution”. He was pardoned by the King in December at the Prime Minister’s request.
In October, CNRP MP Um Sam An was sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment for incitement related to the CNRP campaign alleging encroachment by Viet Nam into Cambodian territory.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders were threatened and arrested for peacefully carrying out their work. Intimidation, threats and heavy surveillance caused several to leave the country in fear for their safety.
In May, a landmark case was brought against Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda and Lem Mony, staff members from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) who were arrested on 28 April and charged with bribing a witness. Ny Chakrya, a former ADHOC staff member and deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee (NEC), was also charged as an accomplice. The case was related to advice and material support provided by ADHOC to a woman alleged to have had an extra-marital relationship with Kem Sokha. In October, the investigating judge extended their pre-trial detention to one year. In December, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng announced that the five would be released but no action was taken. The alleged affair led to three separate criminal cases involving eight political and civil society actors, as well as one against the woman. The CPP filed a criminal defamation complaint against political commentator Ou Virak for commenting that the cases were politically motivated. Seang Chet, an opposition commune councillor, was convicted on charges of bribery in one of these cases in December. He received a five-year sentence but was pardoned and released two days later.
In a separate case, Ny Chakrya was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for defamation, malicious denunciation and publication of commentaries intended to unlawfully coerce judicial authorities after criticizing a court in Siem Reap for its handling of a land dispute case in May 2015. In April, NEC member and former union leader Rong Chhun was informed that he would be tried on criminal charges in relation to a 2014 demonstration at which a number of protesting factory workers were shot dead by security forces. Ny Chakrya and Rong Chhun both worked for the NEC and their cases were viewed as targeted attempts to exclude them from their appointed positions.
Try Sovikea, Sun Mala and Sim Samnang, environmental activists from the NGO Mother Nature who had been arrested in August 2015, were sentenced in June to 18 months’ imprisonment for threatening to destroy property. They were released after the balance of their sentence after time served was suspended.
Freedom of assembly
Peaceful protests continued to be hampered by the authorities. In May, civil society launched a peaceful “Black Monday” campaign to call for the release of four ADHOC staff and one former NEC staff member (see above). Protesters wearing black took part in weekly gatherings and vigils, and posted images on social media. The authorities attempted to ban the protests and threatened, arrested and detained participants who were generally released only after signing undertakings not to protest again. Housing rights activists from the capital, Phnom Penh, were among those routinely targeted.
Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea from Boeung Kak community were arrested on 15 August at a “Black Monday” vigil. They were tried on 22 August and sentenced to six days’ imprisonment each for insulting a public official. Bov Sophea was released after time served, and Tep Vanny was held in prison for investigation on a revived charge relating to a 2013 protest. In another revived case, on 19 September, Tep Vanny, Bo Chhorvy, Heng Mom and Kong Chantha, also from the Boeung Kak community, were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for insulting and obstructing public officials in relation to a 2011 protest. Tep Vanny remained imprisoned and the three other women remained free pending an appeal against conviction at the end of the year.
Political commentator Kem Ley was shot dead on the morning of 10 July at a service station where he regularly went to meet people. He was frequently interviewed on radio and news media for his views on political events in Cambodia, including criticism of the government. Oeuth Ang, a former soldier, was arrested shortly afterwards, but the authorities failed to conduct an independent and effective investigation or to inform the public adequately of any investigations into the killing. Prime Minister Hun Sen filed a defamation suit against Sam Rainsy after the latter had posted on Facebook that the government may have been behind the killing. Opposition senator Thak Lany was convicted in her absence of defamation and incitement for allegedly accusing Hun Sen of ordering the killing.
No progress was made in holding anyone to account for the killings of at least six people and the enforced disappearance of Khem Saphath during a violent crackdown by security forces on freedom of peaceful assembly in 2013 and 2014. A renewed investigation ordered in 2013 into the fatal shooting of trade union leader Chea Vichea by unidentified perpetrators in January 2004 also appeared to be making no progress.
Right to adequate standard of living
Land grabbing, Economic Land Concessions granted to private stakeholders, and major development projects continued to impact the right to adequate housing for communities around the country. Work on the proposed Lower Sesan II hydropower dam in the northeast province of Stung Treng progressed, with estimates that around 5,000 members of Indigenous minorities faced relocation due to inundation. The UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia called for adequate consultation, better understanding of cultural practices and consideration of alternatives proposed by the communities.
Refugees and asylum-seekers
In January the Ministry of Interior confirmed that more than 170 Montagnard asylum-seekers who had fled Viet Nam would have their claims assessed for refugee status, after initially refusing to do so. Thirteen who had earlier been granted refugee status were transferred to the Philippines pending resettlement to a third country. During the year, around 29 returned to Viet Nam voluntarily with assistance from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.