(New York) – The Cambodian government under long-time Prime Minister Hun Sen upended the country’s fragile democratic process, jailed critics, and passed repressive new laws in 2015, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

Members of parliament attend a plenary session at the Cambodia National Assembly in Central Phnom Penh on December 16, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

“Hun Sen ignored his commitment to a ‘culture of dialogue’ with the opposition and reverted to a culture of violence and intimidation in 2015,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “He used his control of Cambodia’s security forces, courts, and civil service to force the opposition leader into exile, beat up opposition politicians, jail critics, pass draconian laws, and increase the ruling party’s stranglehold on the country’s institutions.”

Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which kept power after staging fundamentally flawed elections in 2013, took no steps to improve the country’s overall rights situation or to address corruption and other issues provoking public anger. The government claimed that it was committed to fighting corruption but did not act against the most blatant cases. Crony companies and individuals connected to the ruling party forcibly displaced thousands of families for businesses such as palm oil. Authorities repeatedly rounded up “undesirables” from the streets of Phnom Penh and arbitrarily detained them in abusive conditions, at times resulting in death. Criminal suspects were routinely tortured and prosecuted in unfair trials.

The government also violated its international treaty obligations with regard to asylum-seekers, refusing to allow more than 300 ethnic Montagnards from Vietnam to seek refugee status and summarily returning at least 54. It also violated its international legal obligation to arrest former Khmer Rouge members charged with crimes against humanity and war crimes by the United Nations-assisted Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).

The leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy, sought a “culture of dialogue” with Hun Sen, but the CNRP’s initiatives and reform proposals were met with arrests or government attacks on the opposition and civil society. On July 21, 11 CNRP organizers, on trial since 2014 on trumped-up charges of leading or joining an anti-government “insurrection,” were suddenly convicted and sentenced by a Phnom Penh court to 7 to 20 years in prison. On July 13, the CPP-controlled National Assembly passed a law on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that allows the authorities to arbitrarily deny NGOs registration and shut them down.

Hun Sen and other officials have since launched a vilification campaign against rights groups, including those focusing on land disputes and women’s rights. He also convened a closed meeting of nearly 5,000 CPP security force officials at which he issued an “absolute order” that the security forces must “ensure there would be no color revolution” in Cambodia by “eliminating acts by any group or party” deemed “illegal.”

On October 26-27, following Hun Sen’s public encouragement of anti-CNRP demonstrations, the prime minister’s bodyguards and others in civilian clothes brutally assaulted two CNRP parliamentarians outside the National Assembly. Three people were arrested and charged with the attack, but other attackers seen in photographs were not taken into custody. On November 13, a politically motivated arrest warrant was issued for Sam Rainsy based on a conviction in a criminal defamation case in 2011. He was out of the country at the time and opted to remain abroad. Additional baseless criminal actions against him followed.

“Time and time again, Cambodia’s donors have expressed hope about the country’s prospects for reform, including improved respect for human rights, only to have them dashed by Hun Sen,” Adams said. “Yet donors have reacted passively and seem almost fatalistic about the prospects of pressuring Hun Sen to end his reign of abuses. The Cambodian people deserve better.”