Ongoing persecution of unionists, media and opposition ahead of commune elections in Cambodia

Ongoing persecution of unionists, media and opposition ahead of commune elections in Cambodia
Naga World unionists who are striking being dragged into buses (Photo: Twitter/VyvySieng)

The state of civic space in Cambodia is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

From 9th to 11th March 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee reviewed the status of civil and political rights in Cambodia as part of its mandate to monitor state parties' compliance with their legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The Committee in its Concluding Observations were ‘deeply concerned about the persistent violation of the freedom of expression’ including reports of the closure of multiple national and international media outlets; blockage of websites critical of the Government; the use of criminal and civil legal actions against journalists and human rights defenders; and widespread harassment and intimidation of online activists.

The Committee noted with concern that some criminal offences contained in the Criminal Code and in the Law on Telecommunications, including defamation, incitement, insult and lèse-majesté that are often used to restrict freedom of expression disproportionately and excessively. Moreover, it raised concerns that the Sub-Decree on the National Internet Gateway and new draft legislation, including on cybercrime, access to information and the draft amendments to the Press Law raise serious concerns regarding further limitations to freedom of expression and have been formulated without consultation with civil society and relevant stakeholders.

The Committee was also gravely concerned about reports of arbitrary denial of permission to hold peaceful assemblies and the arrests of organisers based on vague legal provisions contained in the Law on Peaceful Assembly. It has also received information regarding the use of excessive and disproportionate force to disperse peaceful demonstrations, leading to widespread arrests and detention of protesters, including human rights defenders, environmental activists, opposition leaders and trade unionists.

In March 2022, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the mass trials against the opposition and civil society in Cambodia, while in May 2022, the Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the Cambodian government to stop persecuting and intimidating political opponents, trade unionists, human rights defenders and journalists ahead of local elections in June 2022 and national elections in 2023.

On 28th March 2022, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia said during the Human Rights Council interactive dialogue that the “panorama of human rights and democracy in the country remains intimidating and disconcerting on many fronts and there has been regression in relation to civic space and political space due to what is, in substance, all-intrusive single-party rule”.

In recent months, the harassment and persecution of NagaWorld unionists and workers has persisted. Licences were revoked for three digital media outlets while civil society groups remained concerned about the internet gateway sub-decree. Activists have been charged around land disputes while opposition activists continued to be criminalised or targeted ahead of the commune elections.

Peaceful Assembly

Ongoing harassment and persecution of NagaWorld strikers

As previously documented, hundreds of workers from the Labour Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), a casino workers’ union, went on strike in December 2021. In response, the authorities declared the strike action to be illegal, attempted to disrupt the strike and dozens have been arrested over the course of the strike. 15 individuals have been charged and 11 were held in pre-trial detention. The authorities have also vilified the strikers as being funded by foreign donors as part of a plan to destabilise the government.

On 25th February 2022, 73 striking employees of the NagaWorld Casino detained at a quarantine centre on charges of violating COVID-19 protocols were released by Phnom Penh authorities without having to pay any fines. The freed strikers had to arrange their own transport home from the quarantine centre as they refused to sign an agreement to stop gathering to protest as a condition of their release.

On 14th March 2022, the Phnom Penh municipal court granted bail to eight union leaders taken into custody after being pressured to sign statements promising to re-enter negotiations with the company and government. The decision reversed the appellate court’s decision on 10th March 2022 to keep the eight union leaders at CC2 prison until their trials, citing the fact that their case was still being investigated by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

While the eight were detained, human rights group, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) was denied access to them by the investigation judge of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Further, the Executive Director of CCHR, Sopheap Chak, reported that she was denied access to observe their bail request hearing held on 10th March 2022.

As documented by local human rights groups, the strikers have continued their protests daily but each time the authorities have put strikers into city buses and driven them to the outskirts of the city, dropping them off and forcing them to arrange and pay for their own transport home. This is entirely arbitrary without any legal justification, reasoning or authority. The authorities have also prohibited human rights monitors and journalists from observing. They have been threatened with arrest and detention and in several cases, authorities have been pushed monitors and journalists away as authorities violently drag strikers onto buses. 

On 11th March 2022, Phnom Penh authorities arrested a further 158 striking workers. They were forced into buses and taken to a quarantine facility on the outskirts of town but were not allowed to leave the buses for several hours, enduring extreme heat until the point that some of them began to vomit.

On 15th March 2022, around 100 strikers attempted to resume their peaceful strike in front of NagaWorld. The strikers were pushed onto buses by the authorities, verbally assaulted and brought to Prek Pnov's quarantine centre. Police questioned CCHR monitors and forced them to leave. The same situation occurred on 18th March 2022, when over 100 strikers attempted to continue their peaceful protest but were forcibly taken to Freedom Park. Human rights monitors were chased and prevented from undertaking their work.

Over 100 strikers were rounded up again on 22nd March 2022 and forced onto buses. An SreyPe, who was among the protesters said she was injured when the authorities pushed her against the bus and her leg was caught in the door. Another protester said that the authorities used excessive force and confirmed they were specifically targeting women.

On 19th April, more than 100 unionists returned to strike following failed negotiations and they were yet again put on buses. On 10th May 2022, 116 workers and union members attempted to resume their peaceful strike. They were blocked from doing so by security forces, pushed into buses and driven away from the strike site. CCHR's monitors were also prevented from approaching and from taking pictures.

At the time of writing, nine union leaders and members are being investigated on charges of ‘incitement’ under the Criminal Code while six union members are being investigated on charges of ‘obstruction’ under the COVID-19 law, a restrictive law passed in March 2021.


Licences revoked for three digital media outlets

On 15th March 2022, the Ministry of Information revoked business licences of Bayong Times, KCTV and Cambodia Today, alleging their publications violated journalistic professional ethics and contracts.

The editor-in-chief of Cambodia Today stated that the government's decision was an act of intimidation as well as a limitation of journalists' rights and freedoms as his media outlet had always carried out their work ethically and professionally. Also, a publisher from Bayong Times believed that the government’s action was in retaliation for publishing sensitive information on some government officials who were inactive and involved in corruption.

The Cambodian Journalists Alliance's director viewed the licence revocations as a limitation on press and media freedom, as well as a threat to professional outlets that no longer dare to disclose sensitive government information.

Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked Cambodia 142nd out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index. According to the group, radio stations and newspapers have been silenced, newsrooms purged and journalists prosecuted – leaving the independent media sector devastated. The few attempts to bring independent journalism back to life have ‘drawn the wrath of ruling circles’.

Civil society groups called for internet gateway sub-decree to be revoked

On 16th May 2022, 32 human rights organisations including CIVICUS called on the Cambodian authorities to revoke the Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway (NIG).

According to the groups, since the passage of the sub-decree on 16th February 2021, the government has yet to address the serious human rights concerns raised by civil society groups and tech companies. At the same time, the government has been wholly non-transparent regarding the infrastructure, implementation, financing, and cooperating companies, agencies and organisations involved in supporting the NIG.

The NIG sub-decree paves the way for establishing a digital gateway to manage all internet traffic into and out of Cambodia. Provisions in the sub-decree allow government-appointed NIG operators to block or disconnect any online connections (article 6), retain traffic data for a year and provide other network information as requested by authorities (article 14) and issue overbroad penalties for non-compliant telecommunications operators (article 16).

The sub-decree states that the purpose of the NIG is to facilitate and manage internet connections to strengthen revenue collection, protect national security, and -- in terms that are overbroad, ambiguous and prone to misuse -- to “preserve social order, culture, and national tradition” (article 1).

The groups raised concerns that the gateway will increase censorship capabilities, will have a chilling effect on online communications and generate self-censorship online among critical voices and independent media outlets, who fear increased surveillance, harassment and reprisals.

In April 2021, three independent experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council expressed concerns that the sub-decree “poses risks to the fundamental freedoms of individuals, namely the freedoms of expression and opinion and the right to privacy and may expose individuals’ personal information without their consent, which would contravene international human rights instruments and Cambodian laws.”


Activists charged for live streaming land dispute

On 31st January 2022, two activists, Oum Sophy and Snuon Nhoeun, were detained and charged with intentionally damaging property. They were arrested for live-streaming a dispute from Tamol Leu village in Cholkiri district in which five families were protesting against local authorities for allegedly grabbing some of their land to distribute to other families. On 4th February 2022, both were granted bail. A third person, Tuon Seng, was sent to pretrial detention.

Nhoeun, who is married to Sophy, said that he was disappointed with the charges, which were baseless, and said he believed the arrest was in retaliation for live-streaming the dispute. “They have questioned us related to taking pictures and live-streaming without permission but on paper they have accused us of intentionally causing damage to property,” he said.

He said that the court put some conditions on their release, including banning them from going to the site that is under dispute and taking photos and live-streaming.

Community activists facing charges

On 23rd February 2022, the Provincial Court questioned six forest community activists in Kampong Speu province's Oral district for allegedly causing damage, threatening, publicly insulting and inciting. The six activists are being sued by Ben Sarith, who is a military officer with the Command Tank Unit. During the questioning, about 500 villagers gathered in front of the court to urge the case’s dismissal.

The case began in August 2021, when the government published a sub-decree privatising 262.24 hectares of forest land in Pormeas village in Oral district's Trapaing Chor commune, stating that the area would be allotted to army soldiers for the construction of houses and farms. Villagers alleged troops used violence against them as they tried to stop the army from demarcating the borders and clearing the land with a bulldozer.

Bail denied for opposition activist

On 23rd February 2022, Pav Ravy, a former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activist, had his bail plea denied by the Supreme Court. He has been detained by the Khsach Kandal district police in Kandal province since August 2021. He was charged with “incitement to commit a felony” and “causing serious harm to social order” under articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code for distributing, in August 2019, leaflets calling for the return of former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and encouraging him to remove Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Opposition politicians and activists sentenced

On 17th March 2022, the courts convicted 21 opposition politicians and activists. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced senior and local members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to between five and ten years in prison. Seven people currently abroad were tried and convicted in absentia and sentenced to ten-year prison sentences based on three counts of unsubstantiated charges of “incitement,” “inciting military personnel to disobedience” and “conspiracy.”

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), they were sentenced after an unfair trial in which no credible evidence was brought against the defendants. HRW said the trial appeared to have been aimed at sidelining political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Authorities have held 12 of the convicted opposition politicians in pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 1 (CC1) for up to two years. The twelve detained opposition members were sentenced to five years in prison based on “incitement” and “conspiracy” charges. They will be required to serve three years and eight months in prison, with the remainder of the sentences suspended.

As previously documented, since 2017, the CNRP has faced politically-motivated accusations of fomenting revolution, which formed the basis of the arbitrary dissolution of the CNRP by the Supreme Court in November 2017. Hundreds of CNRP activists and supporters have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, and have faced politically motivated criminal charges since then. Many CNRP activists have been physically attacked and injured by unknown assailants during this period, with no credible investigations into the attacks to date.

Political party targeted ahead of commune elections

On 1st April 2022, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) removed more than 100 candidates from the opposition Candlelight Party from the list of those running in the country’s commune elections on 5th June. The party, which has threatened to boycott the vote because of political harassment of its members and activists by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has accused the NEC of abusing the election law.

Candlelight Party vice president Thach Setha said NEC president Prach Chan removed all candidates in Phnom Penh and Pursat and Kampong Cham provinces from the candidate list. He accused election authorities of not complying with the law by failing to call witnesses to be questioned amid complaints filed by CPP against the Candlelight Party.

Party officials say they have been falsely accused of using fake names for candidates and putting forward some candidates for election without their permission. CCP complaints have accused Candlelight Party candidates of being illiterate and submitting documents without thumbprints or signatures.

On 14th April 2022, Radio Free Asia reported that other opposition activists have meanwhile been arrested, denied release from jail in time to contest the polls, or injured in apparently targeted physical attacks. Some are also facing law suits.

The Candlelight Party, formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Nation party, was founded in 1995. It merged with other opposition forces to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in 2012.