Cambodia: Criminalisation of activists and the opposition continues following sham elections and transfer of political power
The state of civic space in Cambodia is rated as 'repressed' by the CIVICUS Monitor. Repressive laws are routinely misused to harass and criminalise human rights defenders, trade unionists, youth activists, journalists and the political opposition. There have also been concerns around the closure of independent media outlets, the silencing of critical voices and restrictions, arbitrary arrests and excessive force around peaceful protests.
On 23rd July 2023, legislative elections took place in Cambodia which was widely seen as a sham. There was a landslide victory for the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) who secured 96 percent of National Assembly seats. Civil society strongly condemned the pattern of intimidation and retaliation against media workers, civil society and political opponents in the run-up to, during and after elections in Cambodia.
On 2nd August 2023, UN experts said a range of serious human rights violations and severe restrictions on civic and political space affected the credibility of Cambodia’s national elections. This includes the ban on the main opposition party, media restrictions and blockages and the harassment of perceived opponents of the ruling elite.
On 22nd August, Cambodia’s newly elected parliament endorsed military general Hun Manet as prime minister, taking over from his father Hun Sen who had ruled for nearly four decades.
Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, said in October 2023 that “the hereditary succession to power raised serious concerns with respect to human rights, democratic principles and the international rule of law.” The Special Rapporteur presented his report to the Human Rights Council where he assessed progress towards 20 key human rights benchmarks presented to the Council in October 2022.
CIVICUS noted on 10th October that there has been no tangible progress in meeting the benchmarks on civic space. Instead, the assault on civic and political space in the country escalated ahead of the July elections and the benchmark to halt the use of draconian laws and criminalisation of human rights defenders was completely ignored. Further, despite the benchmark to end mass trials of the political opposition and ensure free and fair elections, scores of opposition politicians were convicted on trumped up charges while others were harassed and vilified ahead of the elections.
On 13th October 2023, the UN decided to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia.
In recent months, there have been reports of a physical assault on a government critic, conviction of land activists and the barring of an environmental group from travelling to receive a human rights award. A UN body found the detention of a lawyer arbitrary. Opposition activists were arrested for trying to register a new political party and an opposition leader was sentenced to three years in jail on charges of incitement. Activists marched to demand justice for the killing of a prominent human rights defender seven years ago, while a youth was assaulted by police for protesting. The government blocked access to three media outlets, while the Ministry threatened action against a further media outlet.
Physical assault on government critic
“The attack against Ny Nak & his wife in broad daylight raises grave concerns the Hun Sen government’s brutality against critical voices remains unchanged under his son’s rule” says @hrw about #Cambodia. Manet is old wine in new bottle! @hunsencambodia https://t.co/ARI6pJyCaZ pic.twitter.com/x5UhIJia3B— Phil Robertson (@Reaproy) September 19, 2023
On 12th September 2023, Ny Nak, an agricultural expert and government critic, was assaulted and beaten, with his wife, by baton-wielding motorbikers in Phnom Penh. The attack by men in black clothes and black helmets, happened in daylight and left the man unconscious. He was hospitalised for more than a week with a swollen face and stitches in his forehead.
Ny Nak is well known for his criticism of the previous Hun Sen government. Previously, he served 18 months in prison on charges of ‘incitement’ for a public post allegedly mocking a speech made by Hun Sen on whether to impose a state of emergency in the country. He was released in June 2023 after he had completed his sentence.
During the week prior to the assault, Ny Nak used the alias IMAN-KH to post Facebook remarks that were critical of the government. He had complained on social media about how the Minister of Agriculture Dith Tina handled a report on rice prices.
The attack shares similarities with assaults previously documented in 2023 against members of the opposition Candlelight Party, which were never seriously investigated. According to Radio Free Asia, at least 50 political and social activists have been victims of similar attacks in the country in recent years. Most have targeted opposition party members.
Human Rights Watch said: “The attack against Ny Nak and his wife in broad daylight raises grave concerns that the Hun Sen government’s brutality against critical voices remains unchanged under his son’s rule.”
Conviction of land activists on baseless charges of incitement
On 15 August, the Koh Kong Provincial Court will announce its verdict on the case against ten community land activists charged with incitement to cause social unrest and malicious denunciation concerning their long-standing land dispute with businessman Heng Huy since 2007. pic.twitter.com/gLVAj0wJJB— CCHR Cambodia (@cchrcambodia) August 14, 2023
On 15th October 2023, the Koh Kong Provincial Court convicted 10 land activists to one year in jail for ‘malicious denunciation’ and ‘incitement to provoke chaos’ and ordered them to pay 10 million riel (about USD 2,400) to businessman Heng Huy, whose company is allegedly involved in the illegal land grabs in Koh Kong province.
The 10 land activists from three communities in Koh Kong province were arrested on 29th June 2023, while heading to Phnom Penh and charged with incitement under Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code. They were planning to submit a petition to the Ministry of Justice requesting the Provincial Court to drop all the charges against their community members over their land rights activism. Nine of them were held in pre-trial detention in Koh Kong provincial prison while one was released on bail with restrictive conditions.
Police also threatened around 20 other community members with arrest when they gathered in front of the provincial police station on 30th June to support their representatives.
On 6th July 2023, more than 50 civil society organisations issued a joint statement calling on the authorities to drop the charges and unconditionally release the land activists.
The long-standing land dispute stems back to 2007 after companies linked to tycoons Ly Yong Phat and Heng Huy established sugar plantations on community land. Since then, the activists have faced harassment from the authorities in response to their efforts to safeguard their land.
Land disputes are common in Cambodia, where officials seize land for profitable projects, leaving ordinary people with few or no resources.
Environmental group barred from travelling to receive award
Say hello to 2023 #RightLivelihood Laureate Mother Nature Cambodia!— Right Livelihood (@rightlivelihood) September 28, 2023
Awarded for their fearless and engaging environmental activism, they're igniting change in Cambodia amid a growing government crackdown on civil society.
Explore their courageous work! ➡️https://t.co/bfoiJQVSsC pic.twitter.com/gCnsOrD4zd
In early October 2023, it was reported that the authorities had denied three representatives of environmental activist group Mother Nature Cambodia authorisation to travel to Stockholm, Sweden to accept the Right Livelihood Award which they had won.
On 2nd October, a court in Cambodia ruled that the representatives of Mother Nature — Thon Ratha, Phuong Keo Reaksmey and Long Khunthea — would be denied permission to travel to Stockholm, calling the trip "not necessary." The three environmental activists are serving suspended prison sentences for their advocacy work.
Mother Nature Cambodia is a youth-led environmental rights organisation that works with local communities to preserve nature and livelihoods amid a crackdown by the country's regime on civil society activism. While announcing the winners, Right Livelihood said that the group had been awarded for its "fearless and engaging activism" to preserve Cambodia's natural environment "in the context of a highly restricted democratic space."
On 6th October 2023, youths from Mother Nature marched to submit a petition to the Ministry of Justice seeking approval for them to travel to receive the award but have yet to hear if government officials will intervene in their case.
Environmental activist released after charges dropped
Environmental and Land Activists Freed, As Opposition Party Calls for The Release of All Political Prisonershttps://t.co/fOW9N7mJkj— CamboJA News (@cambojanews) October 11, 2023
On 4th October 2023, according to LICADHO, the Regional Court of Appeal dropped the charges against environmental activist Chhorn Phalla and four other Ratanakiri forest activists - Kham Masork, Sithan Nhan, Thvae Hok and Lat Branh - all of whom are Tampuon indigenous peoples - for allegedly clearing state forest land. Phalla was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment in July 2022 but the Regional Court of Appeal in Tboung Khmum decided to drop the charge. The other four were sentenced to five years’ imprisonment.
They had been convicted for allegedly instigating damage to forest land to claim ownership in Ratanakiri province under Articles 56(4) and 62(1) of the Law on Natural Protected Areas and Article 28 of the Criminal Code.
In a separate case, Phalla was sentenced to five years imprisonment for clearing state forest land, but the Regional Court of Appeal removed that charge in July 2022.
He said he plans to continue fighting against the destruction of natural resources and forests despite the Ratanakiri provincial court “wrongly” finding him guilty of forest crime.
UN body finds detention of lawyer arbitrary
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said in a judgement late Wednesday, July 12, 2023, that while attorney Theary Seng had been convicted of conspiracy to commit treason and other charges last year, her only crime was “making two posts on Facebook critical of… pic.twitter.com/Gh44hSbeW6— Chengchon Son (@sonchengchon) July 13, 2023
On 13th July 2023, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion on the detention of Cambodian American lawyer and human rights defender Theary Seng and found it to be arbitrary, politically motivated and in violation of international law.
As previously documented, in June 2022, she was sentenced to six years’ jail on treason charges that stemmed from abortive efforts in 2019 to bring about the return to Cambodia of opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
The US Senate advanced an appropriations package in August 2023 that includes an amendment that would sanction Cambodian officials involved in the imprisonment of Theary Seng.
On 23rd September 2023, Theary Seng was transferred from Preah Vihear Prison, a remote jail, to Prey Sar II Prison, the country’s largest prison, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. According to RFA, Theary Seng’s lawyer and supporting NGOs requested her transfer because her appeal is being heard in the capital. Sam Chamroeun, her attorney, said the transfer will enable Theary Seng to work with her defence team and to meet with her family in Phnom Penh.
Court upholds conviction of trade union activists
On 19 October, LICADHO reported that the Phnom Penh Appeal Court today upheld the convictions of eight current and former unionists from the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU). The nine activists, including union President Chhim Sithar, were convicted of incitement under Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in May 2023. Eight of the activists appealed the verdict.
As previously documented, LRSU members went on strike since December 2021, after the NagaWorld casino laid off the entire LRSU leadership and many of its members. The unionists were arrested in December 2021 and January 2022, and held in pre-trial detention until March 2022. Sithar was arrested again in November 2022 for allegedly violating judicial supervision conditions. She has since been detained in Prey Sar’s Correctional Centre 2. The other activists will remain under judicial supervision until all appeal avenues are exhausted.
Arrested for trying to register a new political party
On 12th September 2023, police in the northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey arrested 23 Candlelight Party activists for hosting a rally to collect fingerprints, a necessary step to register a new party known as Panha Tumnerp - or Intellectual Modern - Party.
After a few hours, 17 of the Candlelight members were released while six of them – Sin Vatha, Tep Sambath Vathano, Long Lavi, Tuot Veasna and Chhum Sinath Van Siw – remained in detention for “further questioning”. The Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court sent the six activists to pretrial detention and charged them with ‘incitement’ for attempting to form a new political party and refusing to take the local government’s offer to defect to the ruling party.
The rally had been organised in Banteay Meanchey province on 8th and 9th September 2023, and the rally organisers said that they had received approval from the Ministry of Interior to establish the new party.
As previously documented, in recent years the authorities have used various tactics to target the opposition. Dozens have been arrested and jailed, while others have faced physical attacks or harassment to defect. The leading opposition Candelight Party was barred from running in the July 2023 elections.
Criminalisation of opposition leader
Phnom Penh Court Sentences Candlelight Leader Thach Setha to Three Years Jail for Incitementhttps://t.co/udHZh2Ibhf— CamboJA News (@cambojanews) October 18, 2023
Thach Setha, Vice President of the opposition Candlelight Party was found guilty on 18th October and sentenced to three years jail on charges of incitement.
Setha was convicted for a speech that he made to supporters of the former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on 8th January 2023 during a visit to South Korea. The speech criticised the celebration of 7th January, an official holiday marking the toppling of the Khmer Rouge regime. Setha also referred to connections between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Khmer Rouge.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted him on charges of incitement to commit a felony and incitement to discriminate under Articles 494, 495 and 496 of the Criminal Code, and imposed the maximum prison sentence of three years as well as a fine of 4 million riel (about USD 1,000).
Setha has been in detention since January 2023 following his arrest on charges of irregular financial payments in a separate case. Setha was convicted in that case in September 2023, and sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay fines and compensation.
March to demand justice for killing of prominent human rights defender
On 10 July, around forty people commemorated the 7th anniversary of the death of Dr. Kem Ley by marching from the Ministry of Agriculture to Star Mat, where he was murdered. The group demanded justice and a proper investigation to hold the perpetrators accountable. pic.twitter.com/WYMnH8TF5s— CCHR Cambodia (@cchrcambodia) July 10, 2023
On 10th July 2023, CCHR reported that around forty people commemorated the seventh anniversary of the death of Kem Ley, a popular political analyst and commentator, by marching from the Ministry of Agriculture to Star Mat, where he was murdered. The group demanded justice and a proper investigation to hold the perpetrators accountable. Rong Chhun, vice president of the Candlelight Party and a well-known human rights activist, was there and made remarks in memory of Kem Ley. At least 15 plainclothes authorities were present at the gathering.
As previously documented, the prominent political opposition activist, outspoken critic of the government and grassroots organiser was gunned down while having his morning coffee at a petrol station in central Phnom Penh in 2016. Civil society organisations have called on the Cambodian authorities to create an independent Commission of Inquiry to conduct an effective and impartial investigation into Kem Ley’s death that is long overdue. To date, the authorities have failed to take any steps towards the establishment of such an independent and impartial investigative body.
Youths assaulted by police for protesting
On 21st August 2023, a group of youths was surrounded by police and ill-treated for protesting outside the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports.
Keo Sovannrith and some friends had been holding protests in front of the Ministry of Education each Monday for several weeks, calling for the ministry to clarify the reason for his removal from a teacher training programme and demanding his re-admission, before they were confronted by police.
After being assaulted, Keo Sovannrith and his companion were put into a car and driven to the Daun Penh Police Station where they were questioned. On social media, a video showing them being beaten went viral. They were eventually released without signing any documents.
Keo Sovannrith was admitted to the National Institute of Physical Education in November despite having a height of 162 centimetres, which was below the minimum threshold of 165 centimetres for candidates. Along with 11 other potential students, he was dropped without any explanation in December 2022 shortly after taking part in an admission ceremony at a stadium in Phnom Penh.
Government blocks online access to three media outlets
In August 2023, the government issued an order to internet service providers to block access to online websites and social media accounts of three major independent media outlets – The Cambodia Daily, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Kamnotra.
According to Human Rights Watch, the action was taken under a directive issued in July 2023 that requires blocking media web sites that the Department of Information and Audiovisual considers to “disseminate misleading news affecting the honour and reputation of the Royal Government and that fail to comply with the requirements of the Ministry of Information.”
In May 2018, the government adopted the Inter-Ministerial Prakas (proclamation) on Website and Social Media Control, which requires all internet service providers to install surveillance software to monitor content circulated on the internet. The proclamation grants the Post and Telecommunications Ministry the authority to “block or close” all web pages and social media pages containing “illegal content considered as incitement, breaking solidarity, discrimination, create turmoil by will, leading to undermine national security, and public interests and social order.”
Ministry threatens action against media outlet
In September 2023, Cambodia’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) threatened legal action against independent news outlet Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association (CamboJA) for a report that allegedly besmirched the reputation of government officials, including agriculture Minister Dith Tina.
CamboJA reported the assault on farmer entrepreneur Ny Nak and his wife Sok Synet, who were attacked by eight helmet-wearing, baton-wielding motorbike riders near the capital Phnom Penh on 12th September (see above). It also quoted Ny Nak, who rejected the initial conclusion of authorities that the attack could have been a case of robbery. “I believe the men who beat me were trying to kill me for being critical of the government,” Ny Nak said.
On 15th September, MAFF published a statement on its Facebook page dismissing the “baseless claims and accusations” of Ny Nak while castigating CamboJA for publishing a report with “serious breaches of journalistic ethics.”
As previously documented, Cambodia’s press freedom rankings by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published in May 2023 dropped from 142 to 147 out of 180 countries in their press freedom index. In February 2023, Voice of Democracy (VoD), one of the few independent media outlets left in Cambodia, run by the Cambodian Center for Independent Media, was shut down. On 18th March 2023, the Information Ministry revoked the licences of three media outlets after they published reports exposing a senior government official’s role in land fraud.