UN expresses concerns over detention of rights activists

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Protesters gather to demand the release of activists in front of of the Appeal Court in August last year. Hean Rangsey

Six UN human rights experts have requested that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation clarify the details surrounding the arrest, detention, “intimidation, surveillance, threats and excessive use of force” against 15 Cambodian rights activists.

In response, a Cambodian government official explained that all measures taken had been done in accordance with Cambodian law.

In a 17-page letter, UN human rights experts including Rhona Smith – the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia – expressed their concern regarding both the detention of 11 activists and the charges brought against them, and intimidation on others.

The detained activists include those from women’s rights organisations and others who, according to the UN letter, appear to have been charged in relation to the exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

The UN experts also express concern regarding the criminalisation of the basic means by which human rights defenders carry out their work as this totally inhibits their ability to report on and advocate against human rights violations in Cambodia.

They also raised the issue of reported allegations of attempts to prevent human rights defenders from monitoring peaceful demonstrations in line with the right to freedom of assembly.

In the letter, they specifically mentioned the arrests of Rong Chhun, a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council; Ouk Chhayavy , president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA); environmental activists from Mother Nature Cambodia; members of the youth group Khmer Thavrak; and members of the Khmer Student Intelligence League Association (KSILA).

The letter also mentioned purported threats against trade union leaders made in response to their protest over factory closures without any severance pay to workers; threats made against the union representing employees of waste collection firm Cintri (Cambodia) Ltd; and threats made against the Cambodian Tourism Workers’ Union Federation (CTWUF).

The jointly-authored UN letter was made public on January 8. No official reply from the government had been received as of January 8, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia.

“Individuals should never be arrested or criminally prosecuted for their peaceful participation in assemblies. The excessive use of force against human rights defenders and those participating in peaceful demonstrations is also cause for serious concern,” the UN experts wrote.

As it is their responsibility under the mandates provided by the UN Human Rights Council, the UN officials said they had the duty to request clarification of [the status of] all cases.

They requested that the Cambodian government clarify several points for them including a list of defendants, the facts used as a basis for their prosecution, the relevant Cambodian laws the defendants are alleged to have violated, and a list of all arrests, detentions and charges made related to public demonstrations.

Cambodian foreign ministry spokesman Koy Koung could not be reached for comment on January 10.

But Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said it was normal for [UN officials] to express their concerns after receiving complaints or reports sent to them on behalf of the accused parties. He said the government would explain each of the cases to them.

Malin said the cases raised by the UN experts are now in the hands of the courts following investigations by the police.

He cautioned that the people named in the letter were not defenders of human rights and freedoms because their activities were not permitted by the law.

“All activities [undertaken by the accused] were proscribed by law as offences and the police had a solid basis in evidence to initiate judicial procedures against them.

“The group that has been subjected to these charges has no legal basis or justification to be absolved of them without first having undergone a trial in the courts.

“They just accuse [the government] of violating rights, restricting the rights and freedoms of expression and political rights and freedoms [without any basis],” he said.

Malin added that Cambodia has repeatedly clarified [the facts] in all of these cases for the UN already. He said the new UN letter might have come about after the UN officials received complaint from the defendants’ relatives and civil society organisations.

“These expressions of concern and requests for clarification are of no benefit at all to the detained. What might be useful would be their participation in the court procedures in order to introduce some evidence proving that the detained are not guilty as charged.

“To date, there is no solid legal basis for dropping these charges because the police do in fact have a solid legal basis,” he said.

Malin continued that the joint letter was written from the point of view of the authors and was therefore just a collection of opinions rather than facts.

However, he added, the Cambodian Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva would still take the time to respond and explain these cases to the human rights experts.

At least one of the cases the UN inquired about – Chhun’s – is due to be heard in court soon, according to a letter from Phnom Penh municipal court deputy prosecutor Seng Heang.

Heang said the municipal court will hear Chhun’s case on January 15.