Human rights defenders in prison: what is life like behind bars?

In the run-up to the 2017-8 elections, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) is narrowing the space for political dissent and suppressing the right to freedom of assembly. Amid the crackdown on fundamental freedoms, CCHR pays a visit to rights advocates who are being held in pre-trial detention on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. How did they get there, and what does it feel like to be held behind bars?

Dressed in black and holding placards above their heads, a group of activists from Boeung Kak Lake march from house to house, reminding residents of the detention of their long-time community leader and advocate, Ms. Tep Vanny. The demonstrators are ordinary Cambodian men and women who were propelled into a land dispute when their land was leased by the government to Chinese company Shukaku Inc. for development. They hold photographs of Tep Vanny and wear t-shirts emblazoned with her face alongside the message: ‘Free the Activist’. Their march is a tribute to a human rights advocate in prison, who can no longer march for the community herself. Ominously, and despite the fact that the protest is peaceful and takes place in their own neighborhood, the demonstrators are trailed by Daun Penh security guards.[1]

The Black Monday protests go back to May 2016, when four officers from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), as well as a former ADHOC official and deputy secretary-general of the NEC, were arrested on charges of bribing a witness. Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Yi Soksan, Mr. Nay Vanda, Ms. Lim Mony and Mr. Ny Chakrya had given advice and legitimate reimbursement of food and transport costs to Ms. Khom Chandaraty, who sought their legal assistance after police named her as one of the people featured in recorded phone conversations with acting leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha.[2]

Protesters from eviction-hit communities such as Boeung Kak Lake and Borei Keila expanded the ongoing campaigns to demand the release of the four ADHOC staff and one NEC member, dubbed the ‘5KH’. Drawing together disparate social movements, local activists and civil society organizations began to support each other through these demonstrations. Various groups began wearing the color black to demand the release of the five. The color not only showed support for the protesters, it was a mark of the political suppression they faced.

They gathered in central Phnom Penh to demonstrate opposition to the continuing pre-trial detention of the five, often brushing up against the authorities. After the death of political analyst Kem Ley in July, they further expanded the scope of the protest and demanded an independent investigation into the death. But as the activists entered the public debate on the 5KH, they too became targets of judicial harassment.

Black Monday protestors were arrested and detained. Some were forced to sign documents with the promise that they would no longer gather in public wearing black – a measure which has no basis in domestic law. They were told to obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior before launching campaigns.[3] The government warned protesters that their actions were being recorded and they could be targeted by the authorities retroactively.[4] Threatening phone calls and personal visits were made by security forces to prominent activists.[5] All of these actions violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a treaty to which Cambodia is a party.

Dozens of arrests have been made in relation to the Black Monday campaign, and on 16 August 2016 two of its most prominent leaders – Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea – were detained and charged with incitement. Incredibly, when it came to the trial the judge altered the charges against them during the delivery of the verdict and in the end both were convicted for insulting a public official.[6]

In a move that has been seen as a politically motivated response to the prominence of Black Monday protesters, Ms. Tep Vanny was kept in pre-trial detention in relation to previously dormant charges of intentional violence, relating to a 2013 protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house, an occasion which ended in a violent crackdown on the demonstrators by security guards and para police that left some with broken bones.

Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch, identified Tep Vanny’s detention as a violation of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Every Cambodian citizen is guaranteed these rights in Cambodia’s Constitution, which is inseparable from international human rights law. “It seems one can’t protest the wrongful treatment of critics of the government without becoming the next target of government mistreatment.”[7]

Now the 5KH have been detained for over 300 days, and Ms. Tep Vanny for over 200. Their charges bear all the hallmarks of being politically motivated. In November 2016, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention ruled the detention of the ADHOC 5 ‘arbitrary’, and on 23 February 2017 four of the five were denied bail by the Court of Appeal. On 13 March 2017 the Supreme Court also rejected a challenge by four of the five detainees to the extension of their pre-trial detention;[8] the Supreme Court will hear Ny Chakrya’s challenge to the extension of his detention on 24 March.

Also on 23 Febrary, Tep Vanny was sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison. In an earlier abortive hearing, which the judge adjourned because he felt ill, the complainant walked into the courtroom late and interrupted Tep Vanny’s cross-examination. When she saw that it was Mr. Hor Hoeun, a Daun Penh security guard, she grew livid. “I am feeling bad when the plaintiff is the person who beat us while we protested for nearly 10 years.”[9]

The Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (“CCHR”) conducts regular prison visits to touch base with the detained human rights defenders and assess their needs. At Prey Sar prison the ADHOC 5 and Tep Vanny live with hundreds of prisoners, both those awaiting trial and those who have been convicted of crimes. With overcrowded conditions and everything from toiletries to the water to wash with costing money, Prey Sar is a difficult environment to live in.[10] It’s even harder if you are kept there without having yet been convicted.

Even within the same prison, the detainees do not get many opportunities to speak to one another, and all have a lot to say to our NGO officers. The main concern shared by the human rights defenders was concern for their families. As well as missing family and friends, the detainees feel removed from their domestic situation and worry about the safety and wellbeing of their loved ones. From having to sit behind a barrier when they visit to being unable to look after them when they’re sick, the detainees feel separated from relatives who rely on their care. Some of their children are struggling with their studies or are unwell, which the detainees see as a result of the stress of having a parent in prison. Detainees are particularly worried about their families facing intimidation from the authorities.

The detainees were also concerned about other human rights activists whose freedom of assembly is being suppressed. The recent case of Mr. Am Sam Ath and Mr. Chan Puthisak being summoned to court for questioning about a protest they attended last October, when they were beaten by security guards, was particularly troubling. They worry that such moves may be judicial intimidation, designed to deter other human rights defenders from taking a stand.

Crowded conditions and poor hygiene are a constant battle in prison. Within the time that they have been detained, the human rights defenders have seen prisoner numbers soar, sometimes from 20 people in a cell to as many as 50. The Ministry of Interior’s annual report shows that prison numbers have jumped 20 percent since last year.[11] The detainees report that sleeping at night is particularly hard in packed cells.
Despite being held in detention indefinitely, one detainee in particular gave an emotional statement on the current state of Cambodian society. In an impassioned plea, the detainee stressed that – now more than ever – government officials, civil society members and the Cambodian community as a whole need to come together to create a better future for Cambodia. With the upcoming commune elections looming, the importance of peaceful dialogue and cooperation between all sectors of Cambodian society is integral to preserve and develop the democratic structures Cambodia has in place. The prisoner closed their statement reiterating that a fire for justice still burns brightly inside of them, and that they hope Cambodia will continue to rise and grow throughout this difficult time in its history.

Overall, the human rights defenders are in good spirits. This is a sign of their incredible courage and fortitude in the face of adversity, perhaps strengthened by their conviction that they do not deserve such lengthy imprisonment. One detainee expressed worry that advocacy for their cause will dwindle the longer the case is prolonged and they remain in prison. It is imperative that civil society organizations and Cambodian citizens to show their support for the 5KH and Tep Vanny.

Olivia Dehnavi, CCHR International Intern

To find out more about the #Freethe5KH and #FreeTepVanny campaigns, and to send the detainees a personal message in prison, visit https://freethe5kh.net.

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[1] Phnom Penh Post, “Bystanders Cheer Their Support for Black Monday Marchers” (14 February 2017). Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/morenews/bystanders-cheer-their-support-for-black-monday-marchers-125105/

[2] Phnom Penh Post, “Alleged mistress of Kem Sokha slandered for political gain: experts” (19 April 2016). Available at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/alleged-mistress-kem-sokha-slandered-political-gain-experts

[3] Radio Free Asia, “Cambodian Authorities Arrest Seven ‘Black Monday’ Protesters” (06 June 2016). Available at: http://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/cambodian-authorities-arrest-seven-black-monday-protesters-06062016161232.html

[4] Cambodia Daily, “Government Bites Back as ‘Black Monday’ Returns” (27 September 2016). Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/government-bites-back-black-monday-returns-118485/

[5] Human Rights Watch, “Cambodia: Drop Case Against Peaceful Activists” (19 August 2016). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/19/cambodia-drop-case-against-peaceful-activists

[6] LICADHO, “Tep Vanny Returned to CC2 Prison as Two Activists Convicted” (22 August 2016). Available at: https://www.licadho-cambodia.org/flashnews.php?perm=187

[7] Brad Adams, “Cambodia: Drop Case Against Peaceful Activists” (19 August 2016). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/08/19/cambodia-drop-case-against-peaceful-activists

[8] Cambodia Daily, “Top Court Upholds Decision to Deny Bail for Adhoc Officials” (14 March 2017). Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/top-court-upholds-decision-to-deny-bail-for-adhoc-officials-126486/

[9] Cambodia Daily, “Tep Vanny Trial Adjourned After It Descends Into Chaos” (03 February 2013). Available at: https://www.cambodiadaily.com/news/tep-vanny-trial-adjourned-descends-chaos-124587/

[10] LICADHO, “Rights at a Price: Life Inside Cambodia’s Prisons” (20 January 2015). Available at: http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/collection/25/life_inside_cambodia_prison

[11] Phnom Penh Post, “Prison numbers jump 20 percent” (23 February 2017). Available at: http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/prison-numbers-jump-20-percent

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