Human Rights Developments
Defending Human Rights
The Role of the International Community
After more than two years of negotiations, Cambodia and the United Nations tentatively reached agreement in July to establish a national tribunal with international participation to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed between April 1975 and January 1979. As of October, however, the government had yet to submit revised legislation establishing the tribunal to the National Assembly, casting doubt on the government's resolve. Although the high level of political strife that had plagued Cambodia in recent years receded, serious human rights violations continued, including political killings and torture, attacks on opposition leaders, human trafficking, substandard prison conditions, and violations associated with labor and land conflicts.Human Rights Developments
Cambodia and the U.N. reached agreement on the Khmer Rouge tribunal in July, after a series of negotiating sessions in Phnom Penh, New York, and Havana. As a compromise to a fully international tribunal, the U.N. agreed that the tribunal would be located in Cambodia, as a three-tiered special chamber within the Cambodian court system, consisting of a majority of Cambodian judges and a minority of foreign judges. All judges were to be appointed by the Cambodian Supreme Council of Magistracy (SCM), which is dominated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), although the U.N. secretary-general was to put forward a list of foreign jurists as nominees for consideration by the SCM.
Previous stumbling blocks, such as who would control prosecutions, were resolved through a concession brokered by the United States, in which co-prosecutors- one Cambodian and one nominated by the U.N.- would issue indictments. Any differences between co-prosecutors would be resolved through a pretrial chamber composed of Cambodian and foreign judges, with decisions to block indictments requiring the consent of a majority of the judges plus at least one foreign judge. The plan was criticized by Cambodian and international human rightsorganizations. They said it set an international precedent by watering down standards of judicial independence and creating a politically charged indictment process.
Official impunity remained a major problem. Virtually none of the perpetrators of hundreds of politically-motivated extrajudicial killings, incidents of torture, and other abuses committed before and after the 1997 coup and 1998 elections were brought to justice during the year. According to the U.N. special representative for human rights in Cambodia, as of April 2000 the government had investigated only nine of these cases, leading to the trial and imprisonment of three culprits. An emerging trend was for victims of rape or physical assault committed by government agents to be pressured to settle cases out of court, with the encouragement of local officials, police and/or court staff.
Commune-level elections, which had been repeatedly postponed since the 1993 national elections, were not expected to be held until mid-2001 at the earliest. In order to reduce political violence, Cambodia's independent nongovernmental election monitoring coalitions advocated passage of a Commune Election law requiring candidates to run on an individual basis and not as political party members. They also called for the dismantling of commune militia, which were reportedly used during previous elections to carry out violence and intimidation of opposition supporters.
Numerous incidents of violence took place against local commune leaders, mostly directed at members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). These included the February 10 slaying of SRP member Chim Chhuon in Kompong Cham, for which a commune militiaman was later arrested; the June 3 killing of Prak Chhien, commune candidate for the royalist Funcinpec party in Kampot, for which the incumbent commune chief was later arrested; and the August 17 murder of Khhim Nhak, a SRP commune council member in Kompong Cham, for which the commune's deputy police chief was subsequently arrested. Other SRP commune candidates in Kompong Cham, Kampot, and Prey Veng were also threatened or attacked during the year. While rights workers concluded that most of these incidents were motivated at least in part by local political rivalries or the victims' role in publicizing local abuses of power, government officials insisted that the violence reflected nothing more than personal disputes. The effect, however, was clear: the attacks conveyed the message that involvement in politics could be life threatening.
Further harassment of the SRP occurred in May, when mobs attacked the SRP headquarters in Phnom Penh and destroyed a memorial erected by the party in front of the National Assembly. In March, two SRP members, Mong Davuth and Kong Bun Heang, who had been arrested in September 1999 for an alleged 1998 assassination attempt against Prime Minister Hun Sen, were released from prison for lack of evidence. The judge said that both men remained suspects in the case and could be re-arrested at any time. In December 1999, another SRP member, Sok Yoeun, who had fled the country after also being named as a suspect in the alleged assassination attempt, was arrested in Thailand. He was charged with illegal entry and sentenced to six months in prison there. Cambodia sought his extradition to face criminal charges but at this writing Sok Yoeun, having completed his sentence, was still in a Thai prison pending an extradition hearing.
In October, a uniformed soldier threatened to shoot SRP parliamentarian Cheam Channy during a standoff on a Phnom Penh street that lasted more than an hour. Police at the scene did not intervene, despite requests from U.N. human rights workers, who were eventually able to get the parliamentarian to safety.
Non-partisan organizations carrying out voter education were also harassed. In August, provincial authorities in Kampot threatened to arrest members of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), an election monitoring group, for allegedly inciting civil unrest by advocating that candidates run as independents rather than as party members. After intervention by Comfrel's Phnom Penh office and the Ministry of Interior, the charges were dropped. In September, a district chief in Kampot ordered police officers to close a Comfrel meeting being held in a pagoda, allegedly because the organization lacked written permission from the governor to convene the meeting.
In August, rights workers received reports that alleged members of the Khmer Serey (Free Khmer Movement, or FKM), a group accused of plotting to overthrow the government, had been extrajudicially executed or "disappeared" by government forces. As many as thirty men were reportedly taken to a military base in Kratie province in April after having supposedly defected to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF). It was unclear how many of them were members of the FKM; some, apparently, were tricked into claiming to be members by promises that they would receive U.S. $150 a month if they defected. Three of the leaders of the group were later executed. When their bodies were found, they were blindfolded and had their arms tied behind their backs. Others were reported missing and were believed "disappeared." RCAF Deputy Commander Meas Sophea stated that at least seven men were killed in a gun battle with government forces in Kratie in May but alleged that they were all bandits. On August 29, the Department of Defense announced that it would file a defamation suit against the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), which had publicly condemned the killings and "disappearances" and called for an official investigation.
Civilian mobs committed vigilante-style killings of suspected thieves, in some cases, with the apparent collusion of the police. On at least six occasions, suspects held in police custody were seized by, or handed over to, angry mobs and beaten to death. Between January and May, there were at least fourteen reported cases of mob violence against alleged criminals, in which ten people were killed. Law enforcement officers also made use of lethal force against criminal suspects. In one incident on August 3, police shot and killed a suspected motorcycle thief. The police said he was killed while trying to escape, but witnesses said he had been handcuffed and led down railway tracks by two men in plain clothes before he was shot.
Little progress was made in reforming Cambodia's judicial system, plagued by corruption and low-paid and poorly trained personnel. A council for judicial reform, established in 1999 at the urging of Cambodia's international donors, was completely inactive during the year. A legal reform unit established by the Council of Ministers in 2000 with World Bank funding accomplished little apart from hiring consultants to conduct a number of studies. The Supreme Council of Magistracy (SCM)- responsible for overseeing and disciplining judges and commenting on draft laws-began to meet more regularly. During the second half of the year the SCM Disciplinary Council investigated a number of complaints against court officials and took disciplinary action against five judges and one prosecutor.
In December 1999, ostensibly in an effort to curb rampant corruption in the judiciary, Hun Sen issued a directive to suspend several judges in Phnom Penh and rearrest more than sixty individuals who allegedly had bribed their way out of prison. No warrants were produced for the arrests, however, nor were established legal mechanisms employed. As of October, at least thirty-four of those rearrested remained in jail, beyond legal pre-trial detention limits.
The acquittal of former Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin in July underscored the weakness of the judicial system. Rin was tried on July 18 for armed robbery, terrorism, and destruction of public property in conjunction with the murder of three Western hostages in 1994. Rin, who defected to the RCAF in 1994, was acquitted on the basis of a 1994 law that granted an amnesty to Khmer Rouge who defected within six months of the law's promulgation, despite the fact that the kidnaping took place after the law was passed.
Prisoners continued to be subjected to excessive pre-trial detention, food and water shortages, lack of medical care, and shackling. 25 percent of prison inmates interviewed over a three-year period by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho), a local human rights group, stated that they had been tortured, threatened, or otherwise intimidated while in police custody after their arrests. As of August 2000, 369 inmates, some 25 percent of Phnom Penh's prison population, had been held awaiting trial longer than allowed by law. At this writing, the government had not taken any steps to punish the execution-style killing of two escaped prisoners upon their recapture by guards at the Sihanoukville prison in June 1999.
The government and the CPP continued to dominate the airwaves, but more than twenty privately-owned newspapers, some affiliated with opposition parties, were able to publish regularly. The Ministry of Information ordered the suspension of several newspapers, however, for allegedly defaming national leaders and endangering national security. In April, the ministry ordered the thirty-day suspension of Pratebath Poramean Kampuchea (Cambodian News Bulletin) for allegedly insulting government officials. The bulletin was suspended again in July for reprinting a South China Morning Post article that allegedly defamed the king. In February, two opposition newspapers, Samleng Yuvachun Khmer (Voice of Khmer Youth) and Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience), were threatened with closure by the Ministry but then given a reprieve after they published letters of apology for allegedly inciting racial violence and insulting the king.
Ethnic Vietnamese minorities continued to face repression. In November 1999, Phnom Penh municipal authorities evicted approximately 600 ethnic Vietnamese residents from a floating village on the Bassac River, charging that they were illegal immigrants. A number of those evicted told rights workers that they were long-time Cambodian citizens and that local authorities confiscated their identity documents before the eviction. The villagers were forced to float downstream to a location near the Vietnamese border, where they remained as of this writing. Harassment and arrests of suspected "free Vietnam" members in Cambodia opposed to the government of Vietnam increased. As the twenty-fifth anniversary of the reunification of Vietnam on April 30 neared, Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities announced that they were conducting joint actions to thwart suspected terrorist attacks. In February, Truong Tan Hoang and Vinh Anh Tung, both alleged "free Vietnam" members, were arrested in different cities. In March, police in Phnom Penh surrounded and entered the homes of several other suspected members, who eluded arrest by going into hiding. Since 1996, more than twenty people suspected of belonging to anti-Hanoi organizations have been arrested in Cambodia. They have then either "disappeared" or been deported to Vietnam, where some have been tortured and imprisoned. Vietnamese asylum seekers in Cambodia appeared to be at higher risk of forcible return than asylum seekers from other countries because of inconsistent application of protection policies by the Phnom Penh office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Evictions and forcible confiscation of land by military and civilian authorities continued to rank as one of Cambodia's most pervasive human rights problems. One NGO, Legal Aid of Cambodia, estimated its land-related caseload at around 6,000 families, with the vast majority of the conflicts involving military commanders or provincial and local officials. Particularly vulnerable to land confiscation were Cambodia's indigenous ethnic minorities in the northeast, whose lands were threatened by logging concessions and industrial plantations. With assistance from NGOs and consultants from the Asian Development Bank, a revised land law was drafted and submitted to the Council of Ministers in July. In June, both King Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed strong support for the revised law to provide communal land ownership rights for indigenous minorities.
Labor violations included arbitrary dismissal, unsafe working conditions, failure to pay the minimum wage, and discrimination and intimidation of union and worker activists. A labor code passed in 1997 met international standards, but enforcement was poor and procedures for registering unions remained cumbersome. In March, the Ministry of Labor issued a circular banning strikes that did not take place within the premise of a factory, enterprise or establishment and requiring at least seven days prior notice to the employer and the ministry in advance of a strike. Nevertheless, Cambodia's labor movement remained strong through the year. In June, thousands of garment workers went on strike in Phnom Penh to press for better working conditions and an increase in monthly wages.
Cambodia continued to be plagued by trafficking of people from rural areas and other countries for sexual exploitation or to work in substandard conditions in Phnom Penh sweatshops. Powerful figures running trafficking networks, and their accomplices -many of them government officials, soldiers, or police- were usually immune from prosecution. In twenty cases of human trafficking recorded by Licadho from late 1999 to early 2000, for example, only three perpetrators had been arrested and detained as of May 2000.
In one incident in February, fifty-one trafficked workers from Vietnam and China were detained and forced to work at the GT garment factory in Phnom Penh. Workers stated that they had been lured to Cambodia with promises that they would be paid U.S. $100 a month for eight hours of work a day. Instead, during their first three months at work they were paid around $50 a month and prohibited from leaving the factory. Police raided the factory and released the workers, but afterwards repeatedly threatened to arrest the workers for lacking proper documentation to work in Cambodia. No punitive action was taken against those who were responsible for smuggling the workers into Cambodia and detaining and exploiting them in the factory.
In another case in August, police raided the Best Western hotel in Phnom Penh, where seven women recruited from Romania and Moldova had been promised jobs as dancers. Instead, they had been kept against their will in the hotel or its affiliate, where they were forced to work as prostitutes. Many of their clients were reportedly government officials. The hotel owner, a Chinese-Canadian who had taken the women's passports from them when they arrived in Phnom Penh, was released by police after questioning, reportedly for lack of evidence. No arrests were made of those who recruited the women in Europe and facilitated their entry to Cambodia.
In September, the Ministry of Women's Affairs announced that it was establishing a blacklist system to banish suspected foreign sex offenders from Cambodia, whether or not they had been convicted. When some human rights workers criticized the blacklist system for circumventing due process and the presumption of innocence, the ministry defended the move by acknowledging that Cambodian courts could not be depended upon to uphold the law.
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Human RIghts Watch