Gov’t rebuffs rapporteurs’ concerns on Rong Chhun case

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Crowds protest to demand Rong Chhun’s release. Chhun has been sentenced to two years in prison. Hean Rangsey

Cambodia's Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva has dismissed concerns voiced by UN human rights experts on the convictions of prominent activist Rong Chhun and two of his supporters last week.

The contentious exchange came after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Chhun to two years in prison and fined him two million riel ($500) on August 18.

The court also sentenced Chhun’s supporters Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol to 20 months in prison and fined them the same amount.

The three were charged with inciting serious social unrest and a compensation payment of 400 million riel ($100,000) was demanded by the Cambodian Border Affairs Committee, which was a civil party to their cases.

Chhun is president of the Cambodian Watchdog Council and a former member of the National Election Committee, nominated to the post by the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2013.

In a statement on August 24, UN human rights experts strongly criticised the Cambodian authorities for convicting Chhun over comments made on Facebook about the alleged loss of land and forced evictions along the Cambodia-Vietnam border.

They were equally critical of the government’s conviction of Kanika and Nimol for participating in a demonstration a year ago that called for Chhun’s release from pre-trial detention.

The UN experts include special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia Vitit Muntarbhorn; special rapporteur on human rights defenders Mary Lawlor; special rapporteur on adequate housing Balakrishnan Rajagopal; and special rapporteur on the rights of peaceful assembly and association Clement Voule.

“The Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia in Geneva deplores the personal views of a handful of special rapporteurs who are unable to see the bigger picture, which is the importance of maintaining the rule of law – with equal application and equal treatment under the law – of all citizens in the Kingdom,” it said in a press statement on August 24.

The UN rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Muntarbhorn, was forceful in his remarks, stating that the imprisonment and severe punishment of the three activists was unreasonable and disproportionate.

“I am extremely alarmed that the court convicted three human rights defenders for acts that are protected by their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. These rights are guaranteed by Cambodian and international law,” he said.

In response, the Permanent Mission said: “The special rapporteurs never bother to make mention of the principle that the exercise of one’s rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association carry with them special duties, responsibilities and limitations, as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” it said.

Chhun was arrested on July 31 last year, 10 days after he posted a statement to Facebook regarding border demarcation and alleged forced evictions in Trapeang Phlong commune of Tbuong Khmum province’s Ponhea Kraek district.