Supporters of Mam Sonando clash with local police during a protest calling for his release, near the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 1, 2012.

© Reuters 2012

(London) – Cambodia’s human rights situation deteriorated in 2012 with increased violence and scripted trials against political and civil society activists, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2013. The government failed to act against favored members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) implicated in serious abuses.  

In its 665-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including an analysis of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

In 2012, Cambodia’s government repression and violence appeared designed to ensure a large victory for the CPP in national elections scheduled for July 2013, Human Rights Watch said. Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in office for more than 27 years, has said he intends to remain Cambodia’s leader for another 30. Political opposition leader Sam Rainsy stayed in exile to avoid a long prison sentence handed down in clumsily created political trials, further reducing the possibility of a free and fair national election.

“Cambodia’s human rights situation took a nosedive in 2012 as Hun Sen lashed out at critics, opposition politicians, land rights activists, and others” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite his strong grip on power, Hun Sen acted aggressively and erratically at the expense of the Cambodian people, who are bearing the brunt of his increasingly dictatorial rule.”  

Activists defending human rights, opposing land grabs, and demanding better working conditions were killed or wounded, arbitrarily arrested or threatened with arrest, or kept in exile by CPP-led security forces and the CPP-controlled judiciary.

Violence involving state security forces occurred to stop peaceful opposition to years of land-grabs by powerful government-backed business and security interests. On May 16, security force gunfire killed 14-year-old Heng Chantha during a government military operation against a village in Kratie province protesting the allegedly illegal seizure of their land by a foreign concessionaire. Her death was not investigated, but alleged leaders of the protest were charged and sentenced for secession (see below). 

“The cumulative effect of land-grabbing has affected huge numbers of Cambodians,” said Adams. “Enormous government grants of economic and other land concessions in corrupt or crony deals, many of which included foreign investors, still led many communities to protest or refuse to leave land that was taken out from under their feet. The government has used violence, criminal charges, and intimidation, but the protests continued.”

Violence was also aimed against labor unrest among workers striking for increased wages and improvements in working conditions, Human Rights Watch said. On February 20, three factory workers were wounded by gunfire during a large protest in Bavet municipality of Svay Rieng province. Despite strong evidence that the CPP mayor, Chhouk Bandit, caused the injuries by intentionally firing directly into the crowd, the Svay Rieng court dismissed the case against him on December 14, instead indicting someone against whom no evidence of responsibility for the crime was known.

On April 26, well-known environmental activist Chhut Wutthy was shot dead after military police and company security guards stopped him from documenting illegal logging activities in Koh Kong province. Government and judicial investigations into his killing appeared designed to shield those most responsible, and further conceal their unlawful economic activities. In early November, the Koh Kong court convicted an apparent scapegoat, who was then immediately released.

The government used its control over Cambodia’s courts to persecute government critics, Human Rights Watch said. After the May siege of a village in Kratie province, Hun Sen accused protesters of organizing a “secessionist movement.” He used the incident as a pretext to falsely accuse the owner of a popular independent radio station, Mom Sonando, 71, an outspoken advocate of united democratic opposition to the CPP, of being the movement’s ringleader. Sonando returned from a trip to France to face the charges, and despite the lack of any evidence on October 1, the Phnom Penh court sentenced him to 20 years in prison. Sonando was denied bail pending appeal.

On May 24, the Phnom Penh court sentenced 13 women land activists 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 in Phnom Penh part-owned by a Hun Sen crony and a Chinese investor. Amid a domestic and international outcry, the court of appeal released the 13 on June 27, but upheld their convictions. In late December, the Phnom Penh court sentenced two more leaders of protests against urban evictions, Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony, to prison terms.

In an astonishing decision, on December 27 the appeals court re-sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, two men wrongly convicted of the 2004 murder of labor leader Chea Vichea. The two had been released in 2009 after a long campaign demonstrating that neither had any role in the killing. The decision appeared aimed at ensuring there would be no investigation to find those really responsible for the assassination. Chea Vichea led a union associated with opposition leader Sam Rainsy that competed with government-backed unions for members and led many strikes and labor actions.

Hun Sen-appointed Cambodian judicial officers working at the United Nations-assisted Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), mandated to prosecute senior and other leaders of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge responsible for genocide and other international crimes committed in the 1970s, continued to implement Hun Sen’s pronouncements by refusing to investigate Khmer Rouge suspects beyond those the prime minister listed for prosecution. One of these, Kaing Guek Eav alias Duch, was sentenced to life imprisonment on February 3. Three aging Khmer Rouge senior leaders, Nuon Chea, Khieu Samphan, and Ieng Sary, remained on trial during the year. However, Hun Sen publicly stated that other ex-Khmer Rouge leaders who had been named as suspects by UN prosecutors would not face trial by the ECCC.

 “Political trials by the Cambodian courts inevitably call into question the quality of justice in the Khmer Rouge trials, since some of the judges and prosecutors work in both courts,” said Adams. “If these judges and prosecutors take orders in political cases in ordinary courts, there is no reason to think they don’t do the same thing at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.”

ASEAN leadership failures
Cambodia led a disastrous year as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Human Rights Watch said. Taking sides with China, Hun Sen made it impossible for a consensus statement to be issued at the ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in July, the first time in ASEAN’s history that a statement was not issued. Cambodia’s government played a leading role in blocking efforts by regional civil society organizations to adopt a credible and effective human rights mechanism. However, much-publicized criticism of Cambodia’s human rights record embarrassed the government during East Asia and ASEAN summits in Phnom Penh in November.

Cambodia’s poor human rights record, brought into starker relief by changes in Burma, was the main topic of bilateral discussions between US President Barak Obama and Hun Sen during the summits, though Obama passed up the opportunity to speak directly to the Cambodian people, and other governments said little or nothing about the situation.

Human Rights Watch said that with elections scheduled for July 2013, Cambodia’s donors, who still contribute almost half of the national budget, should adopt clear conditions for the elections to be considered free and fair. 

“What will it take for the US, Japan, the European Union, the UN, ASEAN, and others to censure a country with a terrible rights record, a brutal leader determined to stay in power, widespread corruption, and no prospect of a free and fair election?” Adams said. “Occasional criticism mixed large trade delegations and business-as-usual dealings with the Cambodian authorities will not bring changes. Serious and sustained pressure is needed to keep conditions in Cambodia from deteriorating further.”