(New York) – Cambodian authorities should drop trumped-up charges against six leading opposition politicians and immediately and unconditionally release them, Human Rights Watch said today. On July 16, 2014, a Phnom Penh court charged elected members of parliament of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) with insurrection, intentional violence, and obstructing government officials.
Opposition supporters who committed violence against public order para-police on July 15 at a demonstration against the closing of a protest site, and state security forces who used excessive force against participants at the rally should be investigated and appropriately prosecuted.
“Opposition supporters, no matter how frustrated they were with having their rally broken up, have no excuse for severely beating security forces,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Yet that’s no basis for the authorities to charge CNRP politicians with inciting violence, much less absurd counts like ‘insurrection.’ This is just another pretext for threatening opposition leaders with prison.”
Those charged include five members-elect of Cambodia’s National Assembly: Mu Sochua, Ho Vann, Keo Phirum, Men Sothavrin, and Riel Khemarin. The sixth is Oeu Narith, a party youth activist. Bail was denied and all are being held at Prey Sar prison outside Phnom Penh. Government media reported that more summonses have been issued for CNRP leaders to report for questioning.
On July 15, CNRP officials led a peaceful demonstration calling for the reopening of Phnom Penh’s Democracy Plaza (or “Freedom Park”), created under a 2009 law designating it as a place for the exercise of the rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The government of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), under Prime Minister Hun Sen, closed the park to the public to end protests against fundamentally flawed national elections held in July 2013 and the January 2014 killings of garment workers during strike-related unrest.
The site has since been barricaded and occupied by police, gendarmes, and other security force units, including the public order para-police. The government has also banned all other demonstrations elsewhere.
The CNRP and Cambodian nongovernmental organizations have repeatedly called for the government to lift all prohibitions on the right to peaceful assembly in the country. They were backed by the United Nations special rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Cambodia and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and many governments speaking at the UN Human Rights Council during its recent Universal Periodic Review of Cambodia’s human rights record.
The CNRP leader, Mu Sochua, has been especially active in demanding the reopening of Democracy Plaza, repeatedly going to the park with various other party figures to challenge its closure. These nonviolent protests have been routinely roughly pushed back by public order personnel, who do not carry firearms, but wield batons and other nonlethal weapons.
Operating under direct orders from local Phnom Penh authorities, security forces have repeatedly attacked protesters, journalists, and bystanders, often injuring them. The authorities have made no effort to hold them accountable, whether by disciplinary action or criminal prosecution, fuelling anger among some CNRP members and among the party’s supporters in the public at large.
A relatively large number of party leaders, activists, and supporters attended the July 15 protest. Public order personnel attempted to remove a party banner attached to barbed-wire barricades and began pushing back the crowd, striking protesters with batons, which precipitated altercations. Several demonstrators beat isolated security forces personnel, including three who were severely injured.
The authorities charged the six under Cambodia’s Criminal Code as criminal “instigators” (article 28) for “leading an insurrectional movement” (article 459), committing aggravated intentional violence (article 218), and inciting others to commit a felony (article 495). If convicted, each faces up to 37 years in prison.
Human Rights Watch found no evidence to suggest that any of the six organized, incited or participated in the violence. During dozens of public gatherings and events the party has held, party leaders have consistently espoused nonviolence.
The UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association said in his May 21, 2012 report that otherwise peaceful “assembly organizers and participants should not be held responsible and liable for the violent behaviour of others.” In this instance, Human Rights Watch is unaware of any evidence, as required under the “instigator” article, that any of those charged gave instructions or orders for a crime to be committed or otherwise provoked a crime by means of a gift, promise, threat, instigation, or persuasion.
Cambodia’s donors should take a strong stand against this latest attempt by the Hun Sen government to use the courts against opposition politicians.
“These charges against CNRP leaders call for a unified response from donors, who shouldn’t play the game of saying they hope the legal process will be fair,” Adams said. “Instead, they should call for charges to be dropped against those not involved in violence and for their unconditional release.”