Two prominent activists arrested in Cambodia as crackdown continues
On 17th August, following a Black Monday vigil in the Boeung Kak community, two prominent human rights activists, Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea were arrested and charged with 'incitement'. Both Vanny and Sophea are well known for their critical activism to combat corruption in Cambodia. The two activists were working with local communities in the Boeung Kak lake to fight against government plans to redevelop the land for tourism which would cause the eviction of local communities around the lake. According to Front Line Defenders, the two activists are in pre-trial detention and could face up to two years in prison if convicted.
The arrest of the two activists has encouraged others to draw attention to the injustice of their detention. On the 22nd August, a Spanish researcher was arrested and deported for protesting against the arrest of Vanny and Sophea outside the Daun Penh police station. In an interview, the researcher, Marga Bujosa Segado called upon other international activists to raise awareness of their cause by saying:
'I feel lucky. I am free,' she said. '[With Vanny and Sophea] the government is willing to destruct everything, and everyone is seeing that but no one is doing anything.'
On 4th September, six protestors and four balloon vendors were arrested in front of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar after they attempted to release balloons into the air in solidarity with Vanny. After being held for questioning, the four balloon vendors were released later that day, however the six protestors were detained overnight. The sale of balloons in busy public spaces has since been banned by Cambodian authorities, on the grounds of terrorism and public order concerns.
The Black Monday movement in solidarity with detained human rights activists has been growing, with opposition political parties even supporting the movement which asks supporters to wear a black t-shirt every Monday to remember incarcerated dissidents. Despite a ban on the movement by authorities, activists have continued to mobilise against the crackdown on human rights defenders.
On the 8th of August, civil society launched the #FreeThe5KH campaign in response to the earlier detention of five human rights defenders. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, four of the arrested are senior staff members at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and are under investigation for allegations of bribery. Many local groups fear that their detention and investigation is an attempt to discredit the civic organisation. The #FreeThe5KH campaign has proved a rallying call against the authorities' crackdown on civil society in Cambodia by attracting 54 signatures from organisations based in the country and beyond.
Suspicions around the work of civil society are heightening in Cambodia. Reports from the ground note that CSOs, especially operating at the local levels, are being subjected to burdensome and unjustified interference from Cambodian authorities. The government is fearful of civil society's influence on voters ahead of local elections in 2017 national elections in 2018. As a result the security forces have been deployed to monitor the work of CSOs, in many cases interfering with the work of groups working on sensitive issues. On 6th September, these worrying developments were acknowledged by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights at the United Nations, who said:
'We urge the Government, ahead of the local and national elections in 2017 and 2018, to create an environment conducive to the enjoyment of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, which are particularly critical in a pre-electoral context.'