Hun Sen: rights organisation CCHR will not be shut down

Staffers at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights hold up signs reading ‘Save Press Freedom Cambodia’ in solidarity with the Cambodia Daily newspaper, which closed earlier this year following a tax dispute.
Staffers at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights hold up signs reading ‘Save Press Freedom Cambodia’ in solidarity with the Cambodia Daily newspaper, which closed earlier this year following a tax dispute. Photo supplied

In an unexpected turn, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on Saturday that the outspoken Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) will not be shut down, despite accusing the local NGO last week of serving foreign interests.

In an article posted to government mouthpiece Fresh News, the prime minister is quoted as saying CCHR would not need to shutter its operations – less than a week after saying publicly the often critical organisation “must close” and ordering the Interior Ministry to “investigate” it.

“After receiving the statement and the request to the government from CCHR, the Cambodian government has decided to keep this centre by allowing this institution to continue serving human rights activities in Cambodia, and after the investigation of the Interior Ministry has found no activities that involved violations of the law,” the premier was quoted as saying.

Prak Sam Oeun, the director of the Interior Ministry’s General Department of Administration, yesterday confirmed that CCHR could continue its work.

“When it performs properly with neutrality and is not biased to any party, no one will do anything to it. No one is going to do anything to it unless it wrongly supports this or that party,” he said.

CCHR was founded in 2002 by Kem Sokha, who would later go on to co-found the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the country’s largest opposition – only to be jailed in September on widely decried charges of “treason”. The party itself was dissolved at the government’s behest last month in a near-universally condemned Supreme Court decision for allegedly conspiring with foreign governments to foment “revolution”.

Government representatives at the trial accused CCHR, among other groups, of allegedly colluding with the CNRP in its purported plot.

CCHR, for its part, has long been one of the most outspoken local NGOs in Cambodia, and its leaders haven’t hesitated to criticise both the government and the opposition in the past. In a statement yesterday, the organisation welcomed the news that it could remain open.

“Although this has been a challenging time for CCHR’s staff, the organization remained fully confident that any impartial investigation would affirm CCHR’s genuine independence, and the absence of any wrongdoing on its part,” the statement reads. “CCHR looks forward to moving on from this investigation, and continuing the pursuit of its core mission: the urgent and vital work of protecting and promoting respect for human rights in Cambodia.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan also praised the decision in a Facebook post yesterday, saying it showed the government was committed to human rights. “This is the right decision of the prime minister to permit CCHR to continue operating,” he said.

In previous comments he had initially welcomed the potential closure of the organisation. In a message, CCHR Executive Director Chak Sopheap said her organisation had only heard about the investigation second hand.

“Despite hearing through the news channels that CCHR was under investigations, we did not receive any official communication from the Ministry of interior or other authorities, nor were we questioned about CCHR’s operations,” she said.

“In addition, I sincerely hope that the reversal of the Prime Minister’s position regarding the closure of CCHR is the first step for the full restoration of Cambodia’s once vibrant civil society, and that the authorities will work on providing a safe space for all organizations to operate freely.”

Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy at the rights group Licadho, also called on the Interior Ministry to allow other organisations whose operations have been suspended to resume their work again.

“We are pleased that CCHR can continue operating to provide vital services to people in need and we hope that the Ministry of Interior will also clear other NGOs such as Equitable Cambodia to enable them to continue contributing services and assistance to society,” she said.

Equitable Cambodia was suspended for 30 working days at the end of September by the Ministry of Interior for allegedly failing to provide paperwork required by the controversial Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango), and for having allegedly sowed divisions between a ruling party-connected sugar company and villagers involved in a land dispute.

The organisation said yesterday that it is still waiting for notification that it can resume operations from the Interior Ministry.

But the Interior Ministry’s Sam Oeun said Equitable Cambodia was still under suspension. “It has not expired yet,” he said.

The Working Group on Enabling and Protecting Civil Society, meanwhile, drew attention on Friday to recent contentious implementations of Lango, which has been criticised for unduly restricting NGOs’ freedom to operate.

Updated: Monday 4 December, 6:29am