Global civil society network CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation urges the Cambodian government to stop what appears to be an increasingly vicious campaign against civil society. Environmental and land rights activists exposing human rights abuses are particularly at risk as Cambodia's government seeks to promote rapid economic growth through policies that favour the private sector over citizens' rights.
"We can state without a doubt that 2012 has been the worst year for human rights in Cambodia in over a decade," says Naly Pilorge, Director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights. "From increasingly violent crackdowns on peaceful protests, to arbitrary arrests and unwarranted criminal charges against protestors and human rights workers, and to the killing of a prominent environmental activist, civil society in Cambodia is under siege."
71 year-old veteran activist Mam Sonando has been in detention since 15 July on charges of committing public order crimes including "participating in an insurrectionary movement." His detention follows a protest by villagers against the forcible acquisition of their land in Kratie province, during which security forces killed a 14 year-old girl. Prior to his arrest, Mam Sonando's radio station, Beehive Radio, had highlighted a complaint by an overseas opposition political movement to the International Criminal Court that argued that large-scale forced evictions by the Cambodian government that displaced thousands of people amounted to crimes against humanity. It is widely believed that Mam Sonando's arrest was in response to this independent reporting by Beehive. Various reports indicate that his health is deteriorating rapidly and he has now fallen ill for a second time since being detained.
In addition, Chan Soveth, a senior investigator at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, has now been summoned to appear before an investigating judge on 24 August in connection with the Kratie protest. His summons comes eight days after the Prime Minister made accusatory references blaming an unnamed "human rights worker" for his role in providing assistance to villagers in the Kratie land dispute. He stands accused of "providing assistance to the perpetrator" of a crime.
The strong arm of the Cambodian state and its campaign to stifle dissent is evident in both these charges, as Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen has made public pronouncements alluding to the guilt of the two activists, raising concerns about whether they will get a fair trial. The Prime Minister specifically called for the arrest of Sonando on June 26, alleging that as president of the Association of Democrats, Sonando was linked to a supposed secessionist movement in Kratie province.
"What we are seeing in Cambodia amounts to systemic silencing of voices of independent activists and critics, in a clear violation of the country's international commitments to provide conditions where civil society is free to work," says Mandeep Tiwana, CIVICUS' Policy and Advocacy Manager. "We urge the government to reverse these negative trends."
In a further example of state repression of civil society, in May, 13 women protesting against forced evictions in the Boeung Kak lake area of Phnom Penh were given prison sentences of one to two and a half years in a hastily convened trial that lasted barely three hours.
Another episode included the murder of environmental activist, campaigner against illicit logging and founder of the National Resource Protection Group, Chut Wutty. In April this year he was gunned down by members of the military police. Since then, attempts have been made by government officials to cover-up the circumstances of his assassination. Although the Prime Minister has announced an investigation into Chut Wutty's assassination, civil society is concerned about the credibility of the investigation.
Other civil society activists also report experiencing acts of intimidation, including arbitrary detention and physical violence by law enforcement agents.
Although the Cambodian government, having experienced domestic and international pressure, delayed the adoption of a restrictive NGO bill until 2014, the operating environment for civil society in Cambodia remains fraught with difficulties. The experience of the campaign against the NGO bill affirms the need to maintain concerted international pressure on Cambodia's government.
In the light of the restrictive climate in which Cambodian activists are forced to operate, CIVICUS urges the Cambodian government to: (i) guarantee the protection of civil society activists and their organisations; (ii) unconditionally release all activists in detention as a result of their civil society work; and (iii) end further harassment of people involved in the peaceful exercise of their rights to assemble and express.