Legitimacy of upcoming elections questioned with crackdown on media and opposition

As Cambodia prepares for elections in July 2018, the UN, human rights groups and individual nation states have questioned the legitimacy of the vote. As documented on the CIVICUS Monitor, the government has “effectively transformed the country into a one-party state” by dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), banning its members for five years and arresting its leader Kem Sokha. Many other CNRP members and supporters have also fled the country, fearing arrest and harassment. Some have also been imprisoned, along with former leaders of other political parties.

Over the last year, the government has also moved to silence all forms of dissent in the country by systematically arresting and convicting political and human rights activists. It has also clamped down on civil society and the media by closing and suspending several NGOs and media outlets as well as introducing new laws to restrict fundamental freedoms. In mid-May, the CNRP called for a boycott of the election.


UN body declares detention of opposition leader ‘arbitrary’

In April 2018, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) declared the detention of opposition leader Kem Sokha arbitrary, and demanded that Cambodian authorities immediately and unconditionally release him. The WGAD also called the arrest and detention of Kem Sokha “politically motivated,” in a context of “what appears to be an escalating trend in Cambodia of suppression of criticism of the government” ahead of the July 2018 general elections.

The WGAD expressed “serious concern” over the health of Kem Sokha, who suffers from severe pain from a rotator cuff tear in his shoulder, as well as high blood pressure and hyperglycemia.

Debbie Stothard, FIDH Secretary-General said:

“The eight-month pre-trial detention of Kem Sokha is not only arbitrary but also shameful and inhumane. Kem Sokha did not commit any crime and is being punished exclusively for his unwavering fight for democracy. He must be immediately released, along with all other detained opposition members and supporters”.

Kem Sokha was charged in September 2017 with treason under Article 443 of the Criminal Code The charges stemmed from a speech he delivered in Australia in 2013, the video of which was posted online. He is currently in detention and his application for bail was denied by the Supreme Court in early May 2018, thereby extending his pretrial detention for another six months. 

Court uphold convictions against 11 CNRP members

On 10th May 2018, a court in Cambodia upheld “insurrection” convictions against 11 members, supporters and activists of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). After deliberating for two minutes, judges “decided to uphold the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s verdict…and orders the continued detention of the 11 people,” without providing a reason for the ruling.

The 11 have been incarcerated since 2014 for their alleged role in a demonstration organised by the CNRP against government manipulation of the general election a year earlier, and restrictions on peaceful assembly, that turned violent when police tried to forcibly remove protesters. In July 2015, they received sentences of between seven to 20 years in prison.

Human rights groups believe the convictions were politically motivated and handed down in unfair trials.

Cambodian opposition party leader deported from Thailand

In April 2018, Thai immigration police detained Sam Serey, head of the opposition Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), at an immigration centre north of the Thai capital, Bangkok, while he was trying to get his Thai visa extended. He was, however, deported back to Denmark where he has political asylum, rather than extradited to Cambodia.

Sam Serey was convicted in absentia in 2016 for allegedly plotting an attack against the government and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. He has rejected claims that his movement was involved in violence, asserting that it was "mainly gathering documents to back charges against Hun Sen for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court:.

Human rights groups believe his charges and trial to be politically motivated and and part of Prime Minister Hun Sen's strategy of using the judiciary to discredit the opposition. According to Human Rights Watch, the verdict was based on a one-day trial and no evidence of a crime committed by any of the accused was presented.


Attacks on press freedom continue with sale of Phnom Penh Post

On 9th May, civil society groups condemned the latest blow to press freedom in Cambodia, namely the non-transparent sale of the Phnom Penh Post, and the new owner’s immediate interference in the paper’s editorial independence, which led to the resignation of 13 senior staff and reporters and the sacking of the paper’s editor-in-chief.

According to civil society, the Phnom Penh Post was Cambodia’s last remaining independent English-Khmer language daily, and its change of ownership raises serious questions about the paper’s continued independence.

Civil society has also raised concerns that critical Khmer-language media outlets have been severely restricted, with the closure of 32 radio stations from Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA) and Voice of Democracy (VOD). RFA closed its Cambodia bureau citing the repressive media environment, and two of its former reporters have spent almost six months in jail facing treason and other criminal charges related to their journalistic work. Dozens of other reporters and free media advocates have left the country out of fear of persecution.

This year Cambodia dropped ten places in the Reporters Without Borders, World Press Freedom Index, ranking near the bottom at 142 out of 180 countries.

Two charged under new lese majeste law

As documented by the CIVICUS Monitor previously, in February 2018 Cambodia’s parliament unanimously adopted a lese majeste law, which forbids insulting the monarchy. Those found guilty would face between one and five years in prison and a fine of between 500 and 2,500 USD. Since then, at least two people have been charged under the law.

In early May 2018, a 50-year-old teacher was arrested for allegedly insulting the monarchy in a comment posted on Facebook. Police in the central province of Kampong Thom arrested Kheang Navy, a primary school principal, over comments he made that were allegedly critical of King Norodom Sihamoni, his father, late King Norodom Sihanouk and his half-brother Prince Norodom Ranariddh. The comment referred to their alleged role in the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

On 22nd May, Cambodian police arrested a 70-year-old barber, Ban Somphy, for allegedly insulting the king. The police started searching for Somphy on 13th May, after the Siem Reap provincial security team found out that Somphy shared a text and a photograph on Facebook which insulted the king. While investigations continue, Somphy has been detained in prison in the north-western Siem Reap province.

Rights groups have expressed concerns over the law, citing complaints from Thailand that a similar law there has been abused. Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), stated that:

"There is a genuine danger that this law will be abusively applied to target those who express legitimate criticism of the royal government, as has been the case in other countries, such as Thailand”.
Appeal Court rejects bail request by former RFA journalists

On 19th April, the Appeal Court rejected a bail request appeal by two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists, Yeang Sothearin and Uon Chhin. It was the second bail application by the two men who have been held in pre-trial detention on treason charges since 18th November 2017. The court justified the rejection by claiming they could attempt to flee.

Sothearin and Chhin were arrested on 14th November 2017 and charged under Article 445 of the Criminal Code which pertains to providing information to foreign states or agents that could “undermine national defence”. No evidence to support the charges has been made public. If convicted, they could face seven to 15 years in prison. In March 2018, the pair were also hit with new unfounded charges under the Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation.

The reporters worked for RFA’s Khmer language service until the US-funded media outlet shut its Phnom Penh Bureau on 12th September 2017, citing government repression and the forced closure of its FM radio broadcasts. A family member of Chhin said the charges were made up and that the entire investigation, including the espionage charges, have been levied without evidence.

Dozens of journalists have signed an open letter calling for the authorities to drop its case against two former RFA reporters, claiming that the charges are having a chilling effect on the media and restricting press freedom.

Sandal throwing conviction upheld

According to the NGO LICADHO, Sam Sokha, a labour activist, was convicted by the Kampong Speu Provincial Court on 22nd March 2018 on charges of “insult” and “incitement to discriminate” for posting a video to Facebook in which she throws a sandal at a Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) billboard.

Sokha was convicted in absentia and then deported from Thailand last month, despite having registered there with the United Nations refugee agency. Her case was retried on 15th March 2018. She received a two-year sentence and was ordered to pay a five million riel (1,250 USD) fine. Amnesty International considers her a prisoner of conscience convicted for her peaceful political activism.

UN and international community raise concerns about shrinking space

In March 2018, a new report from the UN highlighted the shrinking political and civic space in Cambodia. The report covers a reporting period by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia from the start of July 2017 until the end of the year.

According to the report, there has been a continued escalation in political tensions and curtailment of civic space, which includes the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha in September and the dissolution of his Cambodia National Rescue Party, as well as the intimidation of other politicians and civil society members. OHCHR had received a significant number of reports of intimidation of civil society organisations which have caused fear among their staff.

On 30th April, the independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor the human rights situation in Cambodia called on the government "to ensure a genuine multi-party democracy in Cambodia which respects its citizens’ participation rights"; release detained opposition leaders; and lift a ban on the opposition taking part in the July general election. Furthermore, the expert declared that:

“No election can be genuine if the main opposition party is barred from taking part...those who currently rule the country have one final opportunity to reverse the current trajectory, and return instead to the constitutional path of multi-party democracy and genuine elections – ensuring a level playing field for all political parties…all Cambodians have a right to openly debate and discuss political affairs; the media must be allowed to scrutinise and criticise, as well as inform the public; and civil society, including NGOs, should be encouraged to play an active role in State affairs”.

On 22nd March 2018, 45 countries called on Cambodia to reinstate the main opposition party, release its jailed leader and ensure a July general election that is free and fair. A statement on the human rights situation in Cambodia read by New Zealand on behalf of a group of 45 countries maintained that previous optimism had been "replaced by deep concern" regarding a decline in civil and political rights in Cambodia. The statement, which was read to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, urged Cambodia's government to reinstate the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and all elected members. The signatories stated that:

“We call on the Royal Government of Cambodia to take all measures necessary, before it is too late, to ensure that the 2018 elections are free, fair and credible.In particular, we urge that the elections take place in a peaceful environment without threats, arbitrary arrests or acts of intimidation, and that all international human rights obligations important for successful elections, such as rights to freedom of expression, press, association and peaceful assembly, are respected, protected and fulfilled”.

Peaceful Assembly

On 18th May 2018, villagers from Koh Kong province seeking compensation for a more than decade-old land grab were violently shoved by security forces as they attempted to walk to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. Many were carrying babies and small children when they were attacked.

More than 200 community members had petitioned ministry officials and stayed overnight at the Samakki Raingsey pagoda on the previous day. When they attempted to walk the five kilometre stretch back to the Ministry's office the following day, about 40 police and para police blocked and shoved the crowd near the pagoda. After about four hours, they were allowed to move, amid a heavy police presence. About 100 armed police and security guards were stationed near barricades along the route.

The communities from Chi Khor Leu, Chi Khor Krom and Dang Peng communes have petitioned the Ministry and provincial authorities for years to compensate land lost in 2006 to two Economic Land Concessions linked to the Thai sugar company KSL as well as ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat. Some Koh Kong communities were compensated in March 2018.