(New York) – US President Barack Obama should publicly express grave concern about Cambodia’s long deteriorating human rights situation while in Phnom Penh for the US-ASEAN and East Asia summits on November 19 and 20, 2012, Human Rights Watch said today. Hun Sen, Asia’s longest serving head of government, has ruled Cambodia for over 27 years and has publicly vowed to remain in power for another 30.
In 2012, the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has routinely used violence, intimidation, and a compliant court system to attack opposition party members and critics, Human Rights Watch said. Obama should urge Hun Sen to allow free and fair elections, release all political prisoners, and end predatory land confiscations and forced evictions. He should call for impartiality and professionalism from key institutions such as the police and judiciary, and the prosecution of senior officials responsible for serious abuses.
“Obama should tell Hun Sen in no uncertain terms that continued donor support depends on immediate improvements in Cambodia’s horrendous human rights record,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Obama should publicly and directly say to the Cambodian people that the US stands with them against political violence and a return to a one-party state. He should make it clear that without systematic reforms, the US will not consider next year’s national elections credible.”
Obama should publicly press Hun Sen to agree to pardon the opposition leader Sam Rainsy and the imprisoned independent radio station owner Mom Sonando, as well as to drop all other politically motivated criminal cases against opposition politicians, social activists, journalists, and human rights defenders. Sam Rainsy is living in exile after being sentenced to 12 years in prison in absentia, while Mom Sonando is serving a 20-year sentence.
Cambodia’s partisan justice system and politically controlled judges are increasingly being used to target critics of the government. Outspoken opposition leaders are regularly threatened with criminal charges or expulsion from the National Assembly. In May, 13 women protesters were convicted after a summary trial for peacefully protesting a corrupt land grab in Phnom Penh. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intervened, helping to obtain the women’s release.
Human rights defenders have come under increasing threat and harassment from the government. In August, the government brought unsupported legal charges against a human rights worker, Chan Soveth. In May a popular and politically active monk, Loun Sovath, was detained on charges secretly filed against him earlier in the year. Sovath is the 2012 recipient of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, a major international human rights award.
The government recently began a wave of harassment aimed at national and regional nongovernmental organizations to prevent them from raising human rights concerns during the ASEAN and East Asia Summits. On November 15, local authorities detained eight people living along the southern wall of the Phnom Penh airport for painting “SOS” signs and portraits of Obama on the roofs of their homes to draw attention to their threatened eviction. Phnom Penh authorities have also arbitrarily detained street children and other people to “beautify” the capital before the summits.
“Dissenters and protesters in Cambodia are increasingly putting their lives and liberty on the line,” Adams said. “Cambodia is becoming a more dangerous place for those who speak out, particularly when economic interests are at stake.”
Unlawful land expropriation is a major problem in Cambodia. The government has carried out a large number of forced evictions of families from their land for private concessions, usually with inadequate or no compensation and without due process. Since 2003, an estimated 400,000 people have been displaced or affected by seizures. Concessions are often awarded in violation of Cambodian law, and companies granted land often engage in illegal activities, like logging, with official backing.
Those who protest or investigate land seizures have been threatened, arrested, and killed. In September, a journalist investigating illegal logging was brutally murdered, found dead in the trunk of his car with axe wounds. In April, a respected environmental organizer, Chhut Wutty, was killed by a uniformed security officer while documenting illegal logging – a major source of revenue for Hun Sen and businessmen associated with him.
In May, security forces killed a 14-year-old girl in Prama, a poor rural village in northern Cambodia, after surrounding the village during a protest against forced evictions. Villagers alleged that their land had been illegally granted as a concession to a company with connections to Hun Sen. The government later charged the leaders of the protest with attempted “secession,” resulting in 30-year prison terms. Hun Sen used the case to call for the arrest of Mom Sonando, the radio station owner, whose 20-year sentence was in response to his public support for the Prama village protesters.
“Obama should not hesitate to publicly condemn Hun Sen’s attacks on democracy and human rights and his efforts to entrench himself as prime minister for life,” Adams said. “Public silence or soft-peddling would only send the message that the US has not learned the lessons of the Arab Spring and will conduct business as usual with authoritarian leaders and governments.”