Cambodian Buddhist monks lead a march appealing for more freedom of expression to mark Human Rights Day in Phnom Penh on December 10, 2009.

© 2009 Reuters

(New York) - Cambodia's respect for basic rights dramatically deteriorated in 2009 as the government misused the judiciary to silence government critics, attacked human rights defenders, tightened restrictions on press freedom, and abandoned its international obligations to protect refugees, Human Rights Watch said today in its new World Report 2010.

The 612-page World Report 2010, the organization's 20th annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. Cambodian human rights defenders were threatened, arbitrarily arrested, and physically attacked during 2009, Human Rights Watch said. Victims included staff and volunteers of human rights organizations, as well as community-based activists working on land rights, natural resource exploitation, and forced evictions.

"Cambodians who speak out to defend their homes, their jobs, and their rights face threats, jail, and physical attacks," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The only way that the Cambodian government will end its assault on civil society is if influential governments and donors demand real change and put the pressure on."

Violations often occurred during mass evictions when police and soldiers frequently used unnecessary or excessive force.  For example, on January 24, the streets of central Phnom Penh were filled with heavily armed soldiers firing teargas and water cannons as they forcibly evicted hundreds of families from the Dey Krahom community. In March, police opened fire on unarmed farmers protesting confiscation of their land in Siem Reap province, seriously wounding four villagers.

More than 60 community activists were imprisoned or awaited trial - often on spurious charges - for helping to organize and represent fellow community members facing eviction or illegal confiscation of their land.

Urban poor evicted from their homes were often dumped in squalid relocation sites far from the city that lack water, social services, and access to jobs.

At least 10 government critics - including four journalists and several opposition party members - were sued for criminal defamation and disinformation by government and military officials, the report says.

"As the political space shrinks for human rights and advocacy groups to defend themselves, there are valid concerns that a pending law to increase restrictions on nongovernmental organizations will be used to shut down groups critical of the government," Adams said.

The report details other key issues including political violence, the lack of accountability  by government officials involved in abuses, arbitrary detention and abuse of sex workers, and substandard prison conditions.

Over 2,000 people who use drugs were arbitrarily detained in 11 government-run drug detention centers, where arduous physical exercises and forced labor are the mainstays of their "treatment," and torture is common. Even if an assessment concludes that an individual is not dependent on drugs, the centers continue to hold some detainees arbitrarily.

One of the year's low points was the government's forcible deportation of 20 Uighur asylum seekers from Cambodia to China on December 19, without an examination of their refugee claims.  This action was a clear violation of Cambodia's obligations as a state that has ratified the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.

"Cambodia's deportation of the Uighurs was a glaring example of the government's failure to respect human rights," Adams said. "The Cambodian government showed its profound disregard for minimum standards of due process, refugee protection, and international cooperation."

Khmer Krom (ethnic Khmer from southern Vietnam) asylum seekers and migrants  faced obstacles to obtaining safe places to live and full citizenship rights in Cambodia, despite pronouncements by the Cambodian government that it considers Khmer Krom who move to Cambodia to be Cambodian citizens.

Thirty years after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, justice for the crimes of that era remained as elusive as ever, Human Rights Watch said. The US$100 million Khmer Rouge tribunal continued to face political interference and made little headway in addressing credible reports of corruption that have plagued the court and undermined its credibility.

Human Rights Watch expressed concerns about the training and material support donors are providing for Cambodian military, police, and counterterrorism units with track records of serious human rights violations. Donors should conduct more thorough vetting of individuals and their units participating in such programs to ensure that none have been involved in rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

"While donors may have policy reasons to work with the Cambodian security forces on issues such as terrorism and peacekeeping, they should work just as hard on holding abusers accountable and ending the culture of impunity that exists for high-ranking members of the security forces and those close to Prime Minister Hun Sen,"  Adams said.