Despite release of activists, suppression continues after ‘sham’ elections

On 29th July 2018, Cambodia's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), led by long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen, won all 125 parliamentary seats in an election that human rights groups have criticised as a ‘sham’. Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said that the election would "pave the way for Hun Sen to cement his uncontested power in Cambodia", adding that the election process was deeply flawed. The European Union, United States, Japan, and others declined to send observers to the election.

As documented in the CIVICUS Monitor, ahead of the elections the government had “effectively transformed the country into a one-party state” by dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and arresting its leaders. Over the year, the government moved to silence all forms of dissent in the country by systematically arresting and convicting political activists and human rights activists. A number of political and human rights activists have been pardoned or released on bail since.

In September 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Cambodia presented her third substantive report on the human rights situation in the country. She concluded that Cambodia’s multi-party democracy was at risk and questioned the “genuineness of these elections, as stipulated in article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.

She called on the government to “move to expand civil society space and create a more favourable and open environment for civil society to operate". In particular she urged the government to withdraw the requirement from October 2017 for civil society actors to give prior notification to the Ministry of Interior before undertaking activities. Further she encouraged the government to “review administrative requirements placed on civil society organisations, such as tax laws, to ensure that they are clearly explained, progressively introduced, not burdensome to comply with, and are transparently implemented by relevant authorities”.

In June 2018, the US imposed sanctions on the commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguards, accusing him of using force to menace opponents for decades. In July 2018, the US passed an act of Congress to level heavy sanctions against Hun Sen and members of his cabinet and inner circle, barring them from the US and blocking their assets and property. In early October 2018, the European Union (EU) told Cambodia it will lose its special access to the their trading bloc, due to human rights concerns.


Former opposition member jailed for insulting the King

On 5th September 2018, a court in Siem Reap province sentenced Ban Samphy, a former opposition party member to a year in jail for sharing a Facebook post criticising the country’s king. It was the first such case brought to trial after a lese majeste provision went into force this year, forbidding insults to the royal family.

Article 437 of the Criminal Code on “insulting the King” states that “the use of words, gestures, writings, sketches or objects which undermine the dignity of a person constitutes an insult”. Those found guilty could face between one and five years in prison and a fine of between 500 and 2,500 USD.

Am Sam Ath from human rights group LICADHO said:

“This verdict is a message to warn and threaten others that they will be prosecuted if they use any language that may affect the king or other leaders…this is a matter of concern for civil society groups.”

According to LICADHO, Somphy had already spent four months in pre-trial detention while five months of his one-year sentence was suspended, meaning he will remain in jail for a further three months.

Supreme court rejects defamation conviction

On 1st October 2018, Cambodia’s Supreme Court rejected the defamation conviction of deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee (NEC) Ny Chakrya citing a lack of evidence, ordering the country’s Appeal Court to hold a retrial of his case.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court had convicted Ny Chakrya on charges of “defamation, malicious denunciation, and for comments intended to unlawfully coerce judicial authorities” under Articles 305, 311, and 522 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code in a September 2016 decision, ordering him to serve six months in prison and pay a fine of six million riel (USD 1,460).

The 2016 conviction followed a complaint by an investigating judge and a deputy prosecutor over comments Ny Chakrya allegedly made at two May 2015 press conferences for human rights group ADHOC - who he worked for at the time - calling for an investigation into legal irregularities related to a land dispute. The conviction was upheld in a December 2016 decision by the Appeal Court.


Human rights defenders convicted for assisting victim of government harassment

On 26th September 2018, four human rights defenders from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) – Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Lim Mony, and Yi Soksan – were convicted of ‘bribery of a witness’ under Article 548 of the Criminal Code. A fifth person, National Election Committee (NEC) official and former ADHOC staff member Ny Chakrya was found guilty as an accomplice under Articles 29 and 548 of the same Criminal Code. Each have been given a five-year sentence by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, with 14 months and one day considered served and the rest of the sentence suspended.

The accused have longstanding histories of promoting human rights in Cambodia, supporting victims of human rights violations and survivors of gender-based violence. The case relates to the legitimate assistance provided to a victim of government harassment in 2016, which was within the mandate of ADHOC’s human rights work. Since April 2016, the accused had spent 427 days in arbitrary pre-trial detention and were released on bail in June 2017

The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), CIVICUS, Freedom House, and Front Line Defenders condemned the conviction. According to the organisations the one-day trial on 18th September and the conviction, “point to a clear retribution against legitimate human rights work, and a failure of the judiciary system in Cambodia to protect defenders.”

In a joint statement, the organisations said:

“We call on the Cambodian authorities to immediately and unconditionally overturn these convictions, and for them to be afforded adequate remedy for the extended period spent in arbitrary pre-trial detention, in line with international standards.”
NGO report says critics “suppressed with increasing frequency and severity”

On 20th September 2018, three non-governmental organisations, The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), and the Solidarity Center (SC) released a report on fundamental freedoms in Cambodia. The report covered the period between April 2017 and March 2018 and provides a comprehensive overview of the exercise of freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

According to the report, fundamental freedoms are under threat in Cambodia, and government critics have been “suppressed with increasing frequency and severity, at the national and local levels”. The report found a notable increase in the number of restrictions of fundamental freedoms, a jump from 391 incidents to 593 since the previous report. During the monitoring period, the groups said they polled 996 members of the public from 21 provinces, spoke to 169 security officials and trade union leaders, and analysed 672 relevant incidents via media monitoring.

The report showed a shift in the state of fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, due to several significant legislative amendments, the systematic and arbitrary application of laws governing fundamental freedoms, and a decrease in the public’s ability to exercise fundamental freedoms. It also said that freedom of association was curtailed by changes to the legal system, an increase in surveillance, and a surge in sanctions against political parties and civil society organisations.

Land rights activist Tep Vanny released from prison 

On 20th August 2018, a prominent land rights activist, Tep Vanny and three other female activists imprisoned with her were freed under a royal pardon. Tep Vanny had led protests against evictions from the capital's Boeung Kak lakeshore community, where the government granted a land concession to a Cambodian tycoon and a Chinese company to develop a luxury residential and commercial community. No reason was specified for the pardons, but they came just days after a sweeping election victory by Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party was officially certified.

On 23rd February 2017, Phnom Penh's Court convicted Tep Vanny of "intentional violence with aggravating circumstances", and sentenced her to two years and six months' imprisonment. The conviction was based on her peaceful participation in a March 2013 protest in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen's house, calling for the release of one of the arbitrarily detained Boeung Kak Lake community members.

Tep Vanny was also ordered to pay a fine of five million Cambodian Riel (around USD 1,250), as well as a combined nine million Riel in compensation payments to the two plaintiffs, both of whom are members of Phnom Penh's Daun Penh district para-police.

Rights groups called the case against her and the other Boueng Kak activists an injustice. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said "this is just one of many outrageous cases in which the authorities have misused Cambodia's justice system to harass and imprison peaceful land rights activists. Human Rights Watch said the charges against Tep Vanny "had no factual basis and were apparently fabricated”.

14 opposition activists released by government

On 28th August, 14 opposition activists were granted a pardon by prime minister Hun Sen and released in what the government says is a “humanitarian” gesture. The 14 were convicted of ‘insurrection; after they forcibly tried to reopen the country’s only designated protest venue, “Freedom Park”, in July 2014 and were handed jail terms ranging from seven to 20 years. The convictions were widely criticised as politically motivated

Opposition leader Kem Sokha released on bail

On 20th September 2018, opposition leader Kem Sokha was unexpectedly released from prison where he was awaiting trial on charges of treason. He, however faces restrictions on his movement and communications, his family says.

Sokha is the head of the since-dissolved main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). He was arrested in 2017 in a case widely seen as politically motivated. He has been accused of colluding with the US to conspire against the Cambodian government. If found guilty, he could face up to 30 years in jail.

On 5th June 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, published its Opinion No. 9/2018, declaring Sokha’s pretrial detention “arbitrary” and “politically motivated,” and said Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release him.

Peaceful Assembly

Villagers protest land dispute case

On 14th September 2018, more than 400 villagers from 13 communities from Sihanoukville province staged a protest, demanding that a local court drop charges against four locals detained by authorities for “violently occupying” disputed property.

The four say they are the rightful owners of property in O’khsach village, Stung Hav district, which was seized by a few wealthy people 11 years ago. They tried to reclaim the land earlier this year because property prices are increasing in and around the coastal resort city of Sihanoukville, where Chinese investors are buying up plots to build casinos. Authorities have detained the four for the past four months pending trial.

You Veasna from the Alliance of Cambodian Farmers’ Community in Sihanoukville said he believes the protest will force the court to issue a just ruling when it hears the case on 27th Sept Cheap Sotheary, the Sihanoukville coordinator for rights group ADHOC who is monitoring the case, said the four villagers have legal documents to prove they are the legitimate owners of the land.

Illegal land grabs by developers or individuals are common in Cambodia, where officials and bureaucrats are bribed to provide bogus land titles.