(New York) – The Cambodian government is carrying out a new wave of arrests of opposition party and social activists. Cambodia’s donors should speak out against the government’s harassment, arbitrary detention, and summary trials of peaceful protesters and the government should end the crackdown.
Since November 10, 2014, Cambodian authorities have arrested 11 peaceful protesters who within a day were convicted in summary trials resulting in one-year prison sentences. At least four others, including two Buddhist monks, have also been arrested. The wave of arrests comes amid a campaign by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen to pressure the main opposition party to scale back demands for reforms to Cambodia’s fundamentally flawed electoral system.
“The Cambodian government’s latest crackdown on peaceful protest makes a mockery of promises of democratic reform,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The country’s donors should publicly condemn this escalating wave of abuse. Failure to speak out will only encourage the ruling party to further close political space and block any hopes for progress toward a genuine multi-party democracy.”
The crackdown has been characterized by a range of human rights violations. State security forces have aggressively denied the right to peaceful assembly by violently breaking up peaceful protests. The authorities have filed trumped-up charges against protesters or would-be protesters. Those charged have been routinely denied bail, convicted after summary trials that did not meet international standards, and given maximum prison sentences.
On November 10, Phnom Penh Municipal Police Commissioner Chuon Sovan ordered police and other security forces to intervene against what the authorities deemed an “unauthorized” demonstration outside City Hall by residents of the capital’s Boeng Kak area. The protesters included victims of earlier forced evictions there, who came to draw attention to the municipality’s failure to relieve severe flooding of their neighbourhood caused by the filling of a local lake. The security forces scuffled with several protesters engaged in a sit-down that briefly hindered vehicles in one lane of traffic on a boulevard in front of City Hall, although traffic otherwise continued to flow.
The security forces detained seven women protesters, immediately charging them with obstructing traffic under the Land Traffic Law. In a summary trial the next day, November 11, lasting less than three hours, a Phnom Penh court convicted all seven and sentenced them to the maximum penalty of one year in prison and fines of two million riel (approximately US$500).
On November 11, security forces broke up an “unauthorized” peaceful assembly in front of the court calling for the release of those arrested the day before. They arrested three women protesters and a Buddhist monk, charging them with aggravated “violent resistance against a public official acting in the discharge of his or her duties.” On November 12 all four were given a summary trial in a Phnom Penh court and sentenced to one year in prison.
On November 11, the authorities also arrested Meach Sovannara, head of the Information Department of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). He was detained under a warrant alleging he had joined an “insurrection” on July 15. On that date, security forces broke up a CNRP protest calling for reopening the government-designated “Freedom Park” demonstration site in Phnom Penh, resulting in a violent melee between security forces and some protesters. The available evidence shows Sovannara urged CNRP members to remain nonviolent, but a court has denied him bail.
The authorities arrested another CNRP activist, Tep Narin, on November 13, for his involvement in the purported “insurrection.” Sum Puthy, an elected CNRP council member for Phnom Penh, has been detained since September on similarly trumped-up charges related to the July 15 events. Sum Puthy’s request for release pending trial was rejected on November 12. A fourth CNRP activist, Ouk Pich Samnang, arrested on October 25 on the same spurious grounds, is being held without bail.
On November 12 the authorities arrested two Buddhist monks just outside a Phnom Penh pagoda as they went to support a demonstration by farmers who had come to the capital from the countryside to protest alleged land-grabbing. Media reports said the monks were to be charged under the criminal code with “participation in a group or a conspiracy” formed “to commit one or more felonies,” based on security force assertions that bamboo and other flagpoles the monks were taking to the demonstration were intended for use as weapons against the security forces.
The allegations against these opposition party and social activists are clearly politically motivated. The authorities should immediately and unconditionally drop all charges and order the release of all those activists jailed or imprisoned.
“The government’s actions in the face of peaceful protest are that of a dictatorship, not a democracy,” Adams said. “The break-up of protests and the summary trials harken back to the CPP’s one-party state in the 1980s. Are donors going to keep silently writing the checks that prop up the Hun Sen government, or are they finally going to find their voices and demand an end to crude repression?”