Judicial harassment is continuing against Luon Sovath, a Buddhist monk from Siem Reap, Cambodia, according to rights groups. Venerable Luon Sovath is a human rights defender who faces ongoing harassment from the authorities for his work with communities struggling against land seizures. Known for his campaigns against forced evictions, he is a recipient of the 2012 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders.
Sometimes called “the Multimedia Monk,” he has worked in support of communities facing forced evictions throughout Cambodia. Forced evictions are among the most widespread human rights abuses in the country. They remove families from their homes and lands with little or no notice, and often without compensation or alternative housing plans.
In 2009, Venerable Sovath’s own village lost farmland in a dispute, leading to a stand-off in which police shot at the unarmed villagers, injuring his brother and nephew. He has said that “To be a human rights defender, you must have a broad heart for humanity and humankind, regardless of the personal cost to yourself.”
Luon Sovath will be tried on November 25th 2014, on charges of allegedly inciting and leading demonstrations against the Cambodian government in Chi Kreng, Siem Reap and Boeung Kak Lake. If found guilty, Venerable Luon Sovath could face up to two years in prison and a fine of $1,000.
Despite threats to his person, of arrest and disrobing, the Venerable Sovath, a non-violent Buddhist monk, uses videos, poems and songs to defend the right to housing. His advocacy touches powerful economic interests.
His trial stems from a separate prosecution that started in November 2011. On November 2nd 2011, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Loun Sovath with incitement to commit a felony (Article 495 of the Penal Code) under case No. 3395. Mr. Sourn Serey Ratha, labelled a terrorist by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), is also charged under the same case.
On August 20th 2012, case No. 3395 went to trial for the first time. Loun Sovath and Sourn Serey Ratha were tried in absentia. The judge’s verdict called for a reinvestigation of the case due to lack of evidence and ordered the prosecutor to separate the case into two separate proceedings, citing lack of evidence connecting the two men to each other. There is no evidence that a new case number was ever assigned.
In September 2014, Sourn Serey Ratha’s lawyer was informed about a new trial against Sovath. The court summons contained three cases against Sourn Serey Ratha, including the original case No. 3395, which had been combined into one new case numbered No. 3395, to be tried on September 18th 2014.
The summons listed the charges of all three cases as charges against Sovath: incitement against Government (Article 495 of the Penal Code), plotting against the Government (Article 453 of the Penal Code) and prohibiting and provoking people not to vote (Article 124 of the Election Law). The lawyers requested to postpone the trial because of short notice and on September 18th 2014, the judge agreed to delay the start of the trial to an unknown date.
On October 30th 2014, Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) lawyers received court summons for Loun Sovath for a new trial to be held on November 25th 2014. This court summons listed only the original 2011 charge of incitement to commit a felony (Article 495 of the Penal Code).
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) urges the authorities of Cambodia to guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of Venerable Loun Sovath, and all human rights defenders in Cambodia and to guarantee the right to peaceful assembly to human rights defenders in Cambodia.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders says the Cambodian government must ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by Cambodia.
In particular, the authorities must conform with the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted on December 9th 1998 by the United Nations General Assembly.The declaration guarantees the right to peacefully assemble and states that “everyone has the right, individually or in association with others, to promote the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels.’’
In addition, it says that the State ‘’shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration.”
Land seizures are common in Cambodia, where large tracts are being sold, often to foreign investors, for logging, agriculture, mining, tourism and fisheries, displacing thousands of people. Since then he has been a strong advocate against forced evictions, which remove families from their homes, often violently and little or no compensation.
According to local human rights groups, an estimated 400,000 Cambodians have been affected by forced evictions or land grabs since 2003 in the wake of ostensible development projects, land disputes and illegal land confiscation.