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

World Press Freedom Day: why is access to information important in Cambodia?

Click here to read Khmer / ចុចទីនេះដើម្បីអានជាភាសាខ្មែរ

Today marks World Press Freedom Day (“WPFD”), an annual initiative that aims to promote and protect freedom of the press across the globe. The principal focus of this year’s WPFD is access to information, an essential requirement of any truly participatory democracy, insofar as it allows for public scrutiny, oversight, participation, and empowerment.

As the recent Panama Papers debacle (in which Cambodia’s Minister of Justice was named) highlights, access to information is crucial to the fight against corruption and, by extension, the promotion of good governance. Guaranteeing access to information is crucial in Cambodia, given the deeply entrenched corruption within the country.

To mark WPFD, CCHR released a series of infographics as part of a social media campaign to highlight the situation of press freedom and access to information in Cambodia. The social media campaign can be followed through CCHR’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

One of the infographics from CCHR’s series

One of the infographics from CCHR’s series

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In addition, CCHR asked local journalists ‘why is access to information important in Cambodia?’ and received the following responses:

We are human beings living in a democratic society. If we cannot access the truth, we are no different to a tree.”

Mr. Vann Vicha, journalist

Access to information is the basic right for everyone to receive public information from public institutions and sometimes from private organizations. Access to information benefits everyone, including reporters, students, farmers, community people and vulnerable groups.”

Ms. Sa Samdeat, citizen journalist

“We know that to make democracy work, people must have the right to know important information and the leadership must be accountable. Thus, for Cambodia to be a democratic country, access to information must be guaranteed under the law in accordance with international principles.”

Ms. Im Rachna, journalist

…Cambodia strongly needs the Law on Access to Information in order to help those who actively work for a better future.”

Mr. Nhim Sakhorn, journalist

“…In a true democratic society access to information is essential. Access to information is the foundation for people to be able to make the right decisions and to know the truth of the situation of their country.”

Mr. Phak Seangly

“The absence of an Access to Information Law has been a major obstacle for me to seek the truth for the public. More corruption cases would have been reported; more corrupt officials would have been held accountable… if an Access to Information Law had existed. I believe that if access to information is legally guaranteed and properly enforced, democratization in Cambodia will thrive.”

Ms. Cheng Mengchou, journalist

“I strongly believe that access to information is extremely important in this country as it aims to ensure an effective democracy and the rule of law… access to information is part of basic human rights to ensure governmental transparency.

Furthermore, freedom of the press and media also plays an important role as a watchdog to check on how the government makes decisions for developments without harming local people. The press and media are effective tools to raise voices against social injustice and to enhance liberty…”

Mr. Taing Vida, journalist

What are your views on access to information in Cambodia? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!

ទិវាសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មានពិភពលោក ៖ ហេតុអ្វីការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានមានសារៈសំខាន់នៅកម្ពុជា?

            នៅថ្ងៃនេះជាការប្រារព្ធទិវាសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មានពិភពលោកជាការផ្តួចផ្តើមប្រចាំឆ្នាំក្នុងគោល បំណងលើកកម្ពស់និងការពារសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មាននៅទូទាំងពិភពលោក។ គោលការណ៍សំខាន់នៃទិវាសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មានឆ្នាំនេះគឺផ្តោតទៅលើការទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន ដែលជាលក្ខខណ្ឌសំខាន់មួយនៃលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យដែលមានលក្ខណៈចូលរួមពិតប្រាកដ ដែល “អនុញ្ញាតឱ្យមានការតាមដានជាសាធារណៈ ការពិនិត្យមើល ការចូលរួម និងការពង្រឹងអំណាច”។

            នាពេលថ្មីៗនេះ ឯកសារប៉ាណាម៉ា (Panama Papers) បានបញ្ចេញឈ្មោះអ្នកលាក់លុយ (ដែលនៅក្នុងនោះក៏មានបង្ហាញឈ្មោះរបស់រដ្ឋមន្ត្រីក្រសួងយុត្តិធម៌កម្ពុជាផងដែរ)។ ការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគឺមានសារៈសំខាន់ក្នុងការប្រយុទ្ធប្រឆាំងនឹងអំពើពុករលួយ និងរហូតដល់ការលើកកម្ពស់អភិបាលកិច្ចល្អ។ ការធានាដល់ការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានមានសារៈសំខាន់នៅកម្ពុជា ដោយសារអំពើពុករលួយបានចាក់ឫសយ៉ាងមាំនៅកម្ពុជាបាន។

            ដើម្បីចូលរួមប្រារព្ធទិវាសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មានពិភពលោកឆ្នាំនេះ ម.ស.ម.ក ចេញផ្សាយប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានជាដែលជាផ្នែកនៃយុទ្ធនាការតាមរយៈបណ្តាញផ្សព្វផ្សាយសង្គម ដើម្បីគូសបញ្ជាក់ពីស្ថានភាពនៃសេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មាននិងការទទួលបានព័ត៌មាននៅកម្ពុជា។ យុទ្ធនាការតាមបណ្តាញផ្សព្វផ្សាយសង្គមនេះនឹងធ្វើឡើងតាមរយៈទំព័រហ្វេសប៊ុក និង ទ្វីតធើរបស់ ម.ស.ម.ក។

ប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានមួយក្នុងចំណោមប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានផ្សេងទៀតរបស់ ម.ស.ម.ក

ប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានមួយក្នុងចំណោមប័ណ្ណព័ត៌មានផ្សេងទៀតរបស់ ម.ស.ម.ក

ម្យ៉ាងទៀត ម.ស.ម.ក បានសួរអ្នកសារព័ត៌ក្នុងស្រុកមួយចំនួនថា “ហេតុអ្វីការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានមានសារៈសំខាន់នៅកម្ពុជា?” ដោយទទួលបានការឆ្លើយតបដូចខាងក្រោម ៖

«ព្រោះពួកយើងជាមនុស្សក្នុងសង្គមប្រជាធិបតេយ្យ បើសិនជាសូម្បីតែព័ត៌មានពិតក៏យើងគ្មានសិទ្ធិទទួល បាននោះពួកយើងមិនខុសអីពីជនគល់ឈើឡើយ»

លោក វណ្ណ វិចារ (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

«សិទ្ធិទទូលបានព័ត៌មានគឺជាសិទ្ធិរបស់មនុស្សគ្រប់រូប ដើម្បីទទួលបានព័ត៌មានជាសាធារណៈដែលបានកាន់ កាប់ដោយស្ថាប័នសាធារណៈនិងក្នុងករណីខ្វះព័ត៌មានដែលកាន់កាប់ដោយស្ថាប័នឯកជន។ សិទ្ធិទទួលបាន ព័ត៌មានមានប្រយោជន៍សម្រាប់មនុស្សគ្រប់រូបរួមទាំងរដ្ឋាភិបាលអ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន សិស្ស កសិករ ប្រជាពលរដ្ឋ ក្នុងសហគមន៍ និងក្រុមដែលងាយរងគ្រោះផ្សេងទៀត»។

អ្នកស្រី សា សំដៀត (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មានពលរដ្ឋ)

«យើងដឹងហើយថា ដើម្បីឲ្យលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យដំណើរការ ប្រជាពលរដ្ឋត្រូវមានសិទ្ធិដឹងនូវព័ត៌មានទាំងឡាយដែលពួកគេគួរតែដឹងឬចាំបាច់ត្រូវដឹងរួមជាមួយនឹងគណនេយ្យភាពនៃការដឹកនាំ។ ហេតុដូច្នេះនៅកម្ពុជាក្នុងនាមជាប្រទេសប្រកាន់របបប្រជាធិបតេយ្យ សិទ្ធិនៃការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគួរត្រូវបានធានាដោយច្បាប់មួយដ៏ល្អស្របតាមគោលការណ៍អន្ដរជាតិ»។

កញ្ញា អ៊ឹម រចនា (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

«…កម្ពុជាចាំបាច់ត្រូវមានច្បាប់ស្តីពីសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន ដើម្បីជួយអ្នកដែលធ្វើការងារសកម្ម ដើម្បីអនាគត ល្អប្រសើរ»។

លោក ញឹម សុខន (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

«… នៅក្នុងសង្គមប្រជាធិបតេយ្យពិតប្រាកដមិនគួរគ្មានសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន (right to know) ទាល់តែ សោះ។ ការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគ្រប់គ្រាន់វាជាមូលដ្ឋានគ្រឹះមួយសម្រាប់ពលរដ្ឋធ្វើការ សម្រេចចិត្តដ៏ ត្រឹមត្រូវ មួយ និងដឹងពីស្ថានភាពរបស់ប្រទេសជាតិខ្លួនផងដែរ»។

លោក ផាក់ ស៊ាងលី (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

«អវត្តមាននៃច្បាប់ស្តីពីសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគឺជាឧបសគ្គធំមួយសម្រាប់រូបខ្ញុំក្នុងការស្វែងរកព័ត៌មានពិតដើម្បីផ្សព្វផ្សាយជូនដល់សាធារណជនករណីអំពើពុករលួយជាច្រើនអាចនឹងត្រូវបានរាយការណ៍ មន្ត្រីពុករលួយជា ច្រើនអាចនឹងត្រូវទទួលខុសត្រូវចំពោះមុខច្បាប់… ប្រសិនជាមានច្បាប់ស្តីពី សិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន។ ខ្ញុំជឿ ជាក់ថា បើសិនជាសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មាន ត្រូវបានធានាដោយ ច្បាប់ ហើយអនុវត្តបានត្រឹមត្រូវ នោះលទ្ធិប្រជា ធិបតេយ្យនៅកម្ពុជានឹងប្រព្រឹត្តទៅដោយរលូន»។

កញ្ញា ចេង ម៉េងជូ (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

« ខ្ញុំជឿយ៉ាងមុតមាំថាសិទ្ធិទទួលបានព័ត៌មានពិតជាមានសារៈសំខាន់ណាស់នៅក្នុងប្រទេសកម្ពុជាក្នុងការធានានូវដំណើរការល្អនៃលទ្ធិប្រជាធិបតេយ្យនិងនីតិរដ្ឋ…ការទទួលបានព័ត៌មានគឺជាផ្នែកមួយនៃសិទ្ធិជាមូលដ្ឋានរបស់មនុស្ស ដើម្បីធានាពីតម្លាភាពរបស់រដ្ឋាភិបាល»

« លើសពីនេះទៀត សេរីភាពសារព័ត៌មាន និងប្រព័ន្ធផ្សព្វផ្សាយដើរតួនាទីយ៉ាងសំខាន់ក្នុងការតាមដាន និងពិនិត្យមើលទៅលើការធ្វើសេចក្តីសម្រេចរបស់រដ្ឋាភិបាលដើម្បីការអភិវឌ្ឍដោយមិនបង្កមហន្តរាយដល់ពលរដ្ឋនៅថ្នាក់មូលដ្ឋាន។ សារព័ត៌មាននិងប្រព័ន្ធផ្សព្វផ្សាយគឺជាឧបករណ៍ដ៏មានប្រសិទ្ធភាពក្នុងការបន្លឺសំឡេង ប្រឆាំង នឹងអំពើអយុត្តិធម៌ក្នុងសង្គម និងបង្កើនតម្លៃនៃសេរីភាព»។

លោក តាំង វីដា (អ្នកសារព័ត៌មាន)

តើអ្នកមានទស្សនៈយ៉ាងណាអំពីការទទួលបានព័ត៌មាននៅកម្ពុជា? សូមចូលរួមចែករំលែកគំនិតរបស់អ្នកនៅផ្នែកមតិយោបល់ខាងក្រោម !

Setting Examples: Women in Leadership

GVeX

Participants from the Global Voices Exchange (#GVeX) in Marseilles, France

By Chak Sopheap

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to go on missions to Washington DC and Marseille and I was able to engage in valuable and constructive discussions with senior government officials and fellow civil society leaders. Besides this, I had the pleasure of meeting with some exceptionally impressive individual leaders who are unwaveringly committed to the promotion of human rights in their communities and I learned a huge amount from my interactions with these individuals. In particular, it was fantastic to meet with some extraordinary women leaders who are providing a shining example for women in leadership in civil society and more generally around the world.

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As part of my mission to Washington DC between 09 and 12 February, it was a privilege to be invited to the White House to meet with US National Security Advisor Susan Rice and nine civil society leaders from South East Asia as part of the ‘Stand with Civil Society: ASEAN Consultations’ in advance of the US-ASEAN Summit. The meeting was an excellent opportunity to discuss problems facing civil society and share experiences and strategies with fellow civil society leaders. Other than the senior level of the meeting, I was most struck by the exceptionally respectful, thoughtful and perceptive style of leadership and personality of Susan Rice during the meeting, which was at times fairly frantic. For example, Susan Rice repeatedly encouraged an activist from a country in which activists are often repressed to contribute her thoughts and experiences. She was reluctant to speak because some of the other participants in the meeting continuously tried to speak over her and also partly because of her country’s political culture. It was impressive to see how Susan Rice ensured all the participants at the meeting were given the space and opportunity to freely express themselves and her considerate approach to encouraging the discussion of diverse perspectives and experiences was remarkable. The perceptive leadership style of Susan Rice and the conscientious manner in which she conducts herself are truly inspiring and make her a wonderful example for women leaders around the world.

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Following the meeting, the US National Security advisor issued a statement reiterating the “United States’ steadfast commitment to sustaining and supporting civil society in Southeast Asia and around the world”.[1] In addition, I also had the opportunity to meet with other senior government officials, including Deputy Secretary Anthony Blinken, Assistant Secretary Tom Malinowski, and Deputy Assistant Secretary Scott Busby, and prominent human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. These meetings were very useful as we were able to discuss human rights abuses in Cambodia as well as the domestic and international strategies that can be used to challenge such violations. Alongside these meetings, I was invited to deliver a speech at an event organized by the association of Cambodian Americans for Human Rights and Democracy. With roughly 300 members of the Cambodian diaspora attending the Valentine’s Day celebration, it was the perfect opportunity for me to stress the importance of the active participation of every Cambodian citizen regardless of who and where we are, to give back to society and this could be the perfect expression of our solidarity and love. I was also interviewed by Voice of America Cambodia.

I then visited Marseille in France in order to attend an event focused on digital rights and advocacy. as part of Global Voices Exchange, ‪#‎GVeX, aimed at developing training and mentoring frameworks for the practice of advocacy, both online and offline, in the global south.

Throughout the five day training and mentoring program for advocacy strategies, I was lucky enough to meet with remarkable individuals who all shared the same passion and common values to support better governance, enable a healthy environment for civil society and empowering individuals to advocate for basic freedoms in their communities. Their determination and enthusiasm to make a difference and help to build a prosperous and liberal society in their communities was truly remarkable and I personally learned a huge amount from hearing about their experiences.

During both of these missions it was an honor to meet with a wide variety of inspirational leaders, from the White House to the activists gathered in Marseille. The determination of so many people with different backgrounds to contribute to the promotion of a liberal democracy and human rights in their own communities was very encouraging. It was especially impressive to meet with some extraordinary women leaders who conduct themselves in an extremely resolute and perceptive manner in order to ensure a wide variety of views and perspectives are properly heard.

Chak Sopheap is the Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights

[1] Office of the US National Security Advisor, ‘Statement by National Security Council Spokesperson Ned Price on National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice’s Meeting with Southeast Asian Civil Society Leaders’, The White House, 11 February 2016 < https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/02/11/statement-national-security-council-spokesperson-ned-price-national >

Two Years Since Ruthless Crackdown of Garment Worker Demonstrations – What Has Changed?

Last Sunday marked the second anniversary of the deadly crackdown of a garment worker protest by military police in Phnom Penh, although it appears that little has changed in terms of the treatment of factory workers in Cambodia or the authorities’ response to demonstrations which remains as ruthless as ever.

The crackdown of the demonstration on 03 January 2014 occurred in Phnom Penh’s Canadia Industrial Park, killing five people and leaving over 30 others injured. These protests were part of a wider ongoing national strike in response to the failure of the Ministry of Labor’s Labor Advisory Committee to adequately raise the minimum wage beyond $95, as unions had requested. The authorities’ response to the discontent was ruthless, using a clearly disproportionate degree of violence in order to disperse the protestors. Initially the police broke up the demonstration beating people with batons before a larger cohort of military police armed with automatic weapons arrived, firing live ammunition at the demonstrators. This use of live ammunition on garment workers was particularly shocking and drew the outright condemnation from several domestic and international groups, and even international buyers.

Unfortunately the events of two years ago cannot be viewed as isolated events since continued demonstrations and violent official reactions suggest that little has changed. On the day of the second anniversary, a crowd of around 300 union members and factory workers gathered to commemorate the incident but this demonstration was also broken up by riot police. Despite the failure to prosecute those responsible for the killing of the five garment workers two years ago, the police arrested and sentenced activists involved in the demonstrations, and continue to arrest those that dare to demand better working conditions by exercising their fundamental right to freedom of assembly. The lack of an effective investigation into the use of deadly force two years ago is demonstrative of the pervading culture of impunity that stifles any legitimate dissent and undermines the rule of law in Cambodia.

The continued use of force to respond to any form of protest constitutes a major violation of the human rights of an already economically and politically marginalized and exploited sector of society. As well as allowing impunity for the state’s security personnel in their disproportionate use of deadly force, the failure to respect the human rights to freedom of assembly and peaceful protest is deeply troubling and constitutes breaches of ­­­Article 37 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is recognized in Cambodian law. Together with this serious infringement of core human rights, there has been very little progress in the improvement of the working conditions or wages in the garment sector. Due to the major significance of the garment industry for the Cambodian economy and fears that increased wages would make Cambodia less attractive to the multinational garment manufacturers, the government and local factory owners have staunchly refused to raise the minimum wage to the levels demanded by the unions. The unions have had some success in negotiating an increase in the monthly minimum wage with the 2016 wage being set at $140, although this still falls well short of the union demands of $160. The minimum wage therefore remains at an unsatisfactory level.

Two years after the deadly protests that drew the world’s attention to the plight of Cambodia’s garment workers, the situation remains much the same. The garment sector continues to be plagued by a myriad of human rights violations, and workers are denied the freedom to protest against their terrible working conditions or low wages due to the threat of lethal police force for which the perpetrators enjoy impunity. While the State certainly has a duty to protect human rights, the garment factories and international buyers also have a responsibility to ensure the rights of Cambodia’s garment workers are respected, as per the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Although cheap labor may be attractive for the likes of GAP and H&M, perhaps fair working conditions, respect for fundamental human rights and freedom from deadly violence would be a more attractive situation for all of those involved in the long term.

Georges Rouillon, CCHR International Intern

Year in Review: The Human Rights Situation in Cambodia in 2015

In 2015, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) witnessed deterioration in the human rights situation in the country, with the vast gap between the theory and the implementation of human rights law growing even wider. The past year has seen a number of human rights abuses perpetrated against citizens; from land rights violations and attacks on Internet freedoms, to crackdowns on protestors and the political opposition. Throughout the year, the Royal Government of Cambodia (“RGC”) increasingly restricted fundamental freedoms, failing to follow Cambodian constitutional obligations and domestically enforceable international human rights standards. This post provides a brief snapshot of just a few of the major human rights issues observed in 2015.

Threats to freedoms of association, assembly and expression

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The year was marked by a number of restrictions to fundamental freedoms and attempts to stifle dissenting voices. After years of debate and heavy criticism from both national and international observers, the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations (“LANGO”) was finally enacted in August, representing one of the biggest threats to freedoms of association and expression in Cambodia in recent years. Despite calls from civil society organizations (“CSOs”) to amend the law, the LANGO contains troubling provisions with regard to the imposition of mandatory registration, onerous registration requirements, reporting obligations, and broad and vague grounds for denial of registration and deregistration. CCHR has already received worrying reports from around the country whereby the law has been used to restrict the activities of CSOs. For example, in August, a group of 71 families in Khsoeum commune, Kratie province, were informed by local authorities to cease all protest activities to protect their land until they had registered under the LANGO.[1]

It is clear that throughout the year, the RGC increasingly attempted to restrict the activities of CSOs and criminalize those who dared to challenge them. For example, the environmental CSO Mother Nature was heavily targeted by the RGC in 2015; its co-founder – activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson – was deported in February, and a number of its members arrested. Three youth members of the organization arrested in August after engaging in peaceful protests against controversial sand dredging activities in Koh Kong remain in detention.

Aside from the LANGO, a number of other laws were passed this year that also restrict fundamental freedoms, including the passage of the election laws[2] in March, following a highly rushed and opaque process; and more recently the Telecommunications Law in November.

The use of social media in Cambodia continued to be a popular tool for news broadcasting and political discussion, despite outright attacks on Internet freedoms and digital rights by the RGC this year. Attacks on Internet freedoms include the arrest of university student Kong Raya and the conviction of Senator Hong Sok Hour in August, both cases relating to Facebook posts, and the more recent arrest warrant issued for the opposition leader’s Facebook manager in early December. This month, Prime Minister Hun Sen ominously warned social media users that he is watching them, threatening “you should not use bad words to insult me, because I can get you if I want to.”

Although the RGC announced at the end of 2014 that the draft Cybercrime Law had been shelved, a second draft was leaked this year, demonstrating that its passage is very much still on the minds of legislators. Although the latest draft appears to have had the most contentious article removed (for now), the broad scope of this law leaves it open to serious abuse. Given that the RGC has already been targeting Internet users and cracking down on the right to freedom of expression before the law has even been passed, the ramifications of the law being adopted are extremely troubling.

While the RGC had vowed to pass the Trade Union Law by the end of 2015, encouragingly the law – which threatens the right to freedom of association – remains under discussion, and the RGC and the opposition have met with trade union leaders to discuss their concerns. What remains to be seen is whether this will have any effect on the final legislation.

The end of the “culture of dialogue”

The year saw the collapse of the so-called “culture of dialogue” between the CPP and the CNRP. The end of the short-lived political truce was followed by politically motivated arrests and charges against opposition members, evidencing that the judiciary remains firmly under the influence of the ruling party as ever. From the 11 CNRP activists jailed in July (despite no evidence being presented in their trial), to the conviction in August of Senator Hong Sok Hour, the CPP’s political influence over the police and judiciary is glaringly apparent. Moreover, the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers outside the National Assembly in October is widely reported to have been orchestrated by the ruling party.

Notably, history seemed to repeat itself this year, with Sam Rainy going into voluntary exile once again, following the issue of an arrest warrant in November in connection with a defamation case dating back to 2008. Several more questionable charges have been brought against him since, and he now faces a number of years in prison. Diverging from history however, is the vow made by Prime Minister Hun Sen that there will be no pardon for Rainsy this time around.

Ongoing land disputes

One of the most obvious forms of human rights violations that continued to plague Cambodia this year was the ongoing violation of land rights. 2015 saw a continuation of pre-existing land disputes, and the beginning of a number of new conflicts. Insecurity of land tenure continued to be a pressing issue felt by a majority of Cambodians, due to land grabs and forced evictions, often associated with land concessions, infrastructure projects and powerful tycoons. Moreover, while a number of land rights activists were released earlier in the year, land rights activists continue to be harassed and intimidated at the hands of the authorities.

2015 was meant to finally see the resolution of the ongoing Borei Keila saga, whereby former Borei Keila residents had long been waiting for a resolution since their violent eviction in January 2012. However the disappointing decision announced by Phnom Penh City Hall on 13 November saw the majority of remaining families denied on-site housing as initially promised by Phanimex Company, and was met with outrage by the affected residents. Now four years since their eviction, the remaining affected residents of Borei Keila continue to seek adequate redress.

Positive developments: LGBT rights, social and economic rights

While undeniably the human rights situation in 2015 looks bleak in Cambodia, in some areas however there were promising signs of improvement. As mentioned in a blog post earlier this year, the RGC appeared relatively open to legislation protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, who often encounter discrimination in Cambodian society. However, as CCHR’s recently released report on the welfare of LGBT individuals points out, there is still a cultural lack of understanding in relation to the LGBT community, thus there is a long way to go before attitudes can be changed, even if the law is adapted to protect LGBT people.

It is also true that there has been some progress in the arena of economic and social rights: a healthy GDP growth in Cambodia in recent years, increased access to mobile and Internet technology, and emergence of a middle class have all contributed to an increased standard of living. Yet much of the economic prosperity generated is concentrated in Phnom Penh. In rural areas a few well-connected businessmen, senators and international corporations collect the huge profits earned through land concessions. Ultimately in 2015, basic healthcare, electricity and even clean drinking water remained a concern for many Cambodians.

Where to in 2016?

As 2016 arrives and the local and national elections draw closer, we can expect further shrinking democracy, with increased pressure from the RGC on dissenting voices both politically, and under the LANGO and other broadly drafted laws. Statements made by senior military leaders outlining their loyalty to the ruling CPP, along with warnings of “civil war”, by Prime Minister Hun Sen should he lose power, add the very real threat of physical violence to the already oppressive and hostile political atmosphere.

However, despite the RGC’s attempts to restrict fundamental freedoms, as citizens become increasingly aware of their rights, they continue to exercise them and advocate for them. Thus, there remains hope that through community advocacy efforts, the work of CSOs, and international pressure, the New Year will signal a new dawn in Cambodia, in which human rights are respected.

[1] See CCHR’s open letter to the Ministry of Interior, dated 21 August 2015 http://bit.ly/1mTiDWc

[2] The Law on the Organization and Function of the National Election Committee and the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly

New Year brings welcome release of activists, but judicial reform still essential

Khmer New Year is traditionally a time to reflect on the year that was, and look forward to what the future will bring. This year’s festivities began on a positive note, with the release of imprisoned land rights activists and opposition party members. However, while certainly cause for celebration, the significance of the move should not be over-stated: the releases are reportedly the result of political bargaining between the CNRP and ruling Cambodian People’s Party, following months of negotiations related to the reform of the National Election Committee. Without meaningful reform to strengthen judicial independence, politically motivated cases against critical voices and unfair trials are likely to continue.

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Cambodian women are speaking up for their rights; it’s time we listen

The women of Boeung Kak Lake protest the destruction of their homes in 2012 (pictured centre: famous land activist Tep Vanny)

The women of Boeung Kak Lake protest the destruction of their homes in 2012 (pictured centre: famous land activist Tep Vanny)

Reflecting on International Women’s Day, CCHR looks at the Cambodian women who are challenging gender norms by fighting for their rights

In every facet of society, women across the world continue to possess fewer advantages while enduring greater threats to their safety and well-being. The abuse of women’s rights is considered by some as the concern of women, and women alone. This is not a ‘women’s issue’, it is a human rights issue.[1] In Cambodia, the simple act of a woman speaking out can be seen as defiant and abhorrent. Nevertheless, brave female activists are raising their voices amidst ongoing attempts from the authorities to silence them. As people held flash-mobs to raise awareness of women’s rights ahead of International Women’s Day, events planned by civil society groups to encourage and empower women in prison had to be cancelled due to new restrictions.

“Women continue to face discrimination based on negative social expectations and stereotypes”

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Land rights through the eyes of an advocate  

A look at Cambodia’s number one human rights issue via the life of one of its prominent defenders

Ly Siev Minh has lived here for as long as she can remember. It may not be perfect, but it’s home.

Her father loves it here, he would fight for her family’s right to be here, no matter what.

Minh lives in Phnom Penh, on a piece of land a company has decided it wants to build on, land it views as more valuable than her family. This means her father has had to fight for her family’s right to be here. He has fought hard, and long, and she is proud to have fought by his side. Guards hired by the company have put snakes in her house, her drinking water has been poisoned, she has been pushed to the ground by the company’s guards, cut by them, and watched her father be beaten by them.

Finally, her father was arrested, and when she searched for him, they arrested her too.

She is still in prison.

……

Cambodia is a country of stark contrasts; indescribable beauty sits alongside rampant and blatant human rights abuses at the hands of not only companies, but also the very government responsible for the protection of its people. Prominent among those abuses is the denial of Cambodians’ rights to land and homes, which the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia believes remains ‘the number one’ human rights issue facing the country. Continue reading

Take a Stance Against Impunity: CCHR Launches Campaign to End Impunity

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Today, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”) launches its annual End Impunity Campaign, marking the United Nations’ first International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists. CCHR is highlighting the rampant nature of impunity in Cambodia, and calling on people across Cambodia and the world to take a stance against it. To show the Royal Government of Cambodia (the “RGC”) the widespread public support for ending impunity, throughout November, we are collecting photos of individuals holding signs pledging to take a stance against impunity. These photos will be printed onto a giant poster and delivered to the Ministry of Justice on 2 December 2014, to push the RGC to take action.

Impunity, which means “without punishment” or “without consequence”, is rampant in Cambodia. Often, those who violate human rights are well-connected individuals, who go unpunished as a result of their status. Incidents of impunity vary from murder cases of human rights activists and journalists that are never investigated, to cases where security forces have used excessive violence against civilians and remain unpunished, to well-connected officials evading justice.

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