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Cambodia: Quash Convictions of Critics, Protesters

US, Donors Should Reconsider Attending East Asia Summit After Harsh Sentences

(New York, October 2, 2012) – Cambodia’s donors, including the United States, European Union, Japan, and the United Nations, should insist on the immediate release of prominent critic of the government Mom Sonando and other activists convicted on trumped-up charges. On October 1, 2012, a Phnom Penh criminal court sentenced Sonando to 20 years in prison on trumped up charges of participating in a purported “secession” movement, while three local activists were sentenced to terms of 15 to 30 years and three others to terms of up to 5 years.

Sonando, 71, is a veteran critic of Hun Sen and his rule, and has been arrested twice before for nonviolent political activities. He is the owner of Beehive Radio, the most outspoken and politically independent radio station in Cambodia, which is a key platform for promotion of human rights and democracy in Cambodia.

“Over the past 20 years Prime Minister Hun Sen has orchestrated many travesties of justice, but the conviction and long sentence of Mom Sonando without a sliver of evidence is a new low,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia’s courts are so politicized they might as well hold the proceedings in Hun Sen’s house.”

Sonando’s radio station has provided airtime for various points of view, including Cambodian civil society, the fight against HIV/AIDS, maternal mortality and human trafficking, campaigns for women’s rights and gender equality, political and economic transparency, equitable and sustainable development, labor rights, environmental protection, the rule of law, and electoral education and election monitoring. Electronic media in Cambodia, such as Apsara TV and Bayon TV, is almost entirely controlled by the government, the latter being under the control of Hun Sen’s daughter. Sonando is also the president of the Association of Democrats, a small nongovernmental organization that promotes human rights and democracy education.

Hun Sen publicly called for Sonando’s arrest on June 26, when Sonando was out of the country, alleging that as president of the Association of Democrats, an organization critical of Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party, Sonando was linked to a supposed secessionist movement based in Prama village in Kratie province.

Villagers in Prama had protested against what they allege is land-grabbing by a rubber company with close connections to Cambodian political leaders. From May 15 to May 17, Prama village was the target of a military-style siege and attack, during which a 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, was shot to death by security forces. No one has been arrested for the girl’s killing, and it appears that no investigation is taking place. However, Hun Sen directly involved himself in legal proceedings against five villagers accused of being the local leaders of the movement to create a state-within-a-state, said by Hun Sen to be backed by Sonando. The Association of Democrats and the five accused denied involvement in any plot to conduct an uprising to establish an “autonomous zone” in Kratie, and no evidence of intent to secede from Cambodia was produced at trial.

Sonando was arrested at his home on the morning of July 15, 2012, and charged under six sections of the penal code. His arrest came two days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s departure from the country after attending the Regional Forum of ASEAN.

“No credible evidence of a secessionist movement or of Sonando’s involvement was produced at the Phnom Penh court, yet it handed down these incredibly harsh sentences anyway,” said Adams. “Sonando and the other activists are being imprisoned for the peaceful exercise of their political views and should be released immediately.”

The convictions are the latest in a series of attacks and harassment against critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said.For example, on April 26, noted environmental activist Chut Wutty was shot dead after being stopped by a team of military police and company security guards from documenting illegal logging activities in Koh Kong province. Although the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear, government and judicial investigations into his killing appeared designed to shield those most responsible and further conceal their unlawful economic activities. The killing had a chilling effect on efforts by others to uncover similar activities.

On May 24 a Phnom Penh court sentenced 13 women, including one 72 years old, to two-and-a-half years in prison for involvement in a campaign protesting evictions and demanding proper resettlement for people displaced by a development project owned by a Hun Sen associate and a Chinese investor in the Boeng Kak area of Phnom Penh. Under domestic and international pressure, the 13 were released by an appeal court on June 27, though it upheld their convictions.

In August and September, a court repeatedly summoned Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and widely seen as the most determined labor leader in the country, to answer allegations he had incited a supposedly illegal strike by garment workers in a factory near Phnom Penh, also putting him at risk of imprisonment.

The convictions of Sonando and the others come in the run-up to national elections in 2013 and the forced exile of opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, who was sentenced on trumped up charges to 12 years in prison after a trial in absentia.

“These convictions and harsh sentences should serve as a wake-up call to foreign donors that Cambodia is rapidly becoming a one-party state,” said Adams. “Hun Sen has been in power for more than 27 years and doesn’t seem to mind his country replacing Burma as ASEAN’s pariah state.”

Human Rights Watch called on donors to treat the declining human rights situation with the urgency it deserves and end its “business as usual” approach to relations with the Cambodian government. An annual donors meeting with the government last week ended without any significant pressure on the government to end political violence, stop attacks and harassment against critics, halt corrupt land concessions that led villagers such as those in Prama to protest, and to exonerate and release all convicted after politically motivated trials.

“These latest convictions call into question whether Cambodia should host November’s East Asia Summit,” said Adams. “President Barack Obama and other world leaders should insist that unless these and other baseless convictions are overturned, including that of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, they will call for the summit to be moved to another ASEAN country. To allow Hun Sen to gain the domestic and international legitimacy of hosting world leaders while he is engaged in a vicious campaign against peaceful critics would be disastrous.” 

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