In Cambodia, Civil Society Condemns Escalating Intimidation and Detention of Human Rights Defenders

Human rights workers being arrested on May 9, 2016 as they attempted to make their way to a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Human rights workers being arrested on May 9, 2016 as they attempted to make their way to a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Eight Cambodian human rights defenders, including four land rights activists, were arrested on May 9th 2016, as they traveled to a demonstration outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh. Although they were released on the same day, civil society organizations are increasingly concerned by the arbitrary arrests and detentions against human rights defenders in Cambodia, intended to silence dissenting voices.

The detentions, which followed the pre-trial detention of four other rights workers and an election official last week, highlight an alarming surge in the Cambodian government’s latest campaign of intimidation against civil society. In a joint statement, 83 civil society groups said that the detentions are an egregious violation of the right to freedom of expression in Cambodia.

Six of the eight detained were arrested as they attempted to make their way to a planned gathering outside Prey Sar prison to take part in the first “Black Monday” demonstration, in which participants dressed in black calling for the release of the five human rights defenders who were arbitrarily detained and charged on May 2nd, 2016. Those five human rights defenders, who were charged on counts of bribery of a witness, and being accomplices to bribery of a witness, included staff from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), the National Election Committee (NEC) and the United Nation’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) in Cambodia.

The demonstration was the first event of the “Black Monday” campaign, in which participants dressed in black to call for the release of the five human rights defenders.

“The arrests are yet another blatant misuse of the criminal justice system to intimidate civil society members,” said Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO, The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights and provides legal representation to victims of human rights abuses. “The detention of land activists and human rights workers was an outrageous scare tactic to prevent civil society from mobilizing in support of jailed fellow human rights defenders.”

At about 8:15 am, Ee Sarom and Thav Kimsan were arrested as they attempted join the gathering. After being stopped at a roadblock, the two men were negotiating for access before they were arrested by municipal police in the presence of the deputy governor of Dangkao district. Mr. Ee Sarom is the Executive Director of the NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT) where he oversees the organisation’s technical and advocacy programs. STT, which is based in Phnom Penh works with impoverished urban communities on land issues and housing rights. Mr. Thav Kimsan is a deputy director at LICADHO.

They were held for questioning at Dangkao district police station until about 6:00 pm that evening, along with Sor Sorn, a land activist from Borei Keila community, who was arrested shortly after them.

Land activists being arrested on May 9 in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

Land activists being arrested on May 9 in Phnom Penh. Photo courtesy LICADHO.

In a coordinated move, three members of Boeung Kak community – Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha and Bov Sophea – were also intercepted and arrested yesterday morning as they attempted to leave their homes to join the gathering outside Prey Sar. They were detained at Daun Penh police station and denied access to lawyers until they, too, were released at about 6:00 pm.

As about 100 people gathered outside Dangkao district police station to call for the release of the rights workers and community members detained within, police took two international staff from LICADHO into custody and transported them to the immigration police office where they were held until about 7:30pm. The two were questioned about their work, the demonstration, and why they were wearing black clothes.

Two days ago, a government spokesman referred to the “Black Monday” campaign as a form of “urban rebellion”. One the same day, the Ministry of Interior told police and military police to “take action” against those wearing black T-shirts.

“The government’s fear of people wearing colors is ludicrous,” said Ee Sarom, STT Executive Director. “Authorities targeted us just for wearing a black T-shirt, which is a peaceful expression of dissent.”

Civil society groups have been holding events outside the prison in support of incarcerated human rights defenders since 2006. May 9th was the first time in a decade that supporters were prevented from doing so through use of roadblocks and heavy deployment of police. The arrests followed a violent attack on a small group of protesters who briefly assembled at one of eight police checkpoints close to the prison. Police confiscated banners calling for the release of the five and assaulted monitors who were taking pictures of the prison, forcing them to wipe their cameras. Three tuk tuks carrying monks who intended to join the gathering were among hundreds of supporters turned away at the police checkpoints.

“The government is so fearful of democratic expression that it consistently misrepresents it as ‘insurrection’ – and uses this rhetoric to quash fundamental freedoms and silence critics,” said Naly Pilorge.

The 83 civil society organizations reaffirm the rights and fundamental freedoms of peaceful human rights defenders to conduct their activities free from threats and punishment, and reiterate their condemnation of the Cambodian government’s escalating campaign of intimidation in an attempt to halt such activities.

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