(New York) – The Cambodian government should immediately release five human rights defenders who have spent a year in prison on politically motivated charges, Human Rights Watch said today. The four current and one former member of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) were placed in custody on April 28, 2016, and later falsely charged with “bribery of a witness.”
“Cambodia’s donors should publicly call for the release and dropping of bogus charges against the ‘ADHOC Five,’ which were instigated by Prime Minister Hun Sen to intimidate and suppress human rights work,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “These human rights defenders are in jail as part of a campaign to destroy the opposition and scare Cambodian human rights workers into silence.”
On May 1, 2016, Hun Sen stated in a speech that those arrested in the case (see below) should be jailed. The next day, an investigating judge of the Phnom Penh court filed “bribery of a witness” charges against four of the detainees. Ny Chakrya was charged with being an accomplice. “Bribery of a witness” is set out under article 548 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code as “the direct or indirect giving of a gift, offer, promise, or interest to a witness in order (1) not to testify; (2) to provide false testimony.” The offense is punishable by five to 10 years in prison. Convicted accomplices face the same punishment.
As the #FreeThe5KH campaign states, the five were “detained in regard to the advice and legitimate reimbursement of food and transport costs provided to the woman alleged to have had an extra-marital relationship with the deputy opposition leader.”
The Phnom Penh court, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court have each refused bail to the five. The prolonged pretrial detention of the ADHOC Five violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a party. Article 9(3) states, “It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody.” The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, has stated that “pretrial detention should be an exception and as short as possible.” Pretrial detention should not be used as a form of punishment. The Human Rights Committee has stated that excessive pretrial detention may in itself be a violation of the rights to liberty and presumption of innocence.
In its bail ruling, the Supreme Court cited article 205 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, saying it was necessary to deny bail to maintain public order and prevent interference with witnesses and victims. However, no specific information of the necessity of such prolonged pretrial detention was provided, and no explanation was given as to why non-custodial measures were insufficient to ensure their appearance in court or to prevent any reasonably anticipated interference with the administration of justice.
“Cambodia’s courts have once again done the bidding of Hun Sen’s government to suppress civil society,” Adams said. “Millions of dollars of international training and mentoring has been wasted as the courts remain tools of injustice.”
Article 12 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides that governments shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection for human rights defenders against “any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary actions” related to their efforts to protect and promote human rights and fundamental freedoms. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that the critical test for human rights work worldwide is whether it is aimed at “acting in support of victims of human rights violations,” including by providing those who may be victims of human rights violations with counseling and other assistance.
Over the past year, Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have significantly escalated persecution on political grounds, targeting Cambodia’s political opposition, human rights workers, social activists, and public intellectuals on the basis of their real or perceived political opposition to the government and its leader. These abuses appeared aimed to prevent victory or create conditions for overturning victory by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in local and national elections scheduled for 2017 and 2018 respectively.
“Cambodia now has dozens of political prisoners, which should be an embarrassment to countries whose foreign assistance sustains an increasingly dictatorial and deeply corrupt government,” Adams said. “No one should mistake these prosecutions for anything other than Hun Sen’s effort to undo decades of work by courageous Cambodian human rights defenders to promote rights and democracy in their country.”
The case of the ADHOC Five arose after ADHOC provided human rights advice and assistance to Khom Chandaraty, widely known as Srey Mom. She and her family approached ADHOC for help on March 9, 2016, after she was “invited” for questioning by the Counterterrorism Directorate of the government’s Central Directorate for Security, which is headed by Lt. Gen. Dy Vichea, a member of the CPP Central Committee and Hun Sen’s son-in-law. The summons did not concern any alleged terrorist activity but asked Srey Mom to provide clarifications about a purported surreptitiously made recording of a conversation between her and Kem Sokha, then acting leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (he is now the official leader after party leader Sam Rainsy resigned after the CPP threatened to liquidate the party ahead of upcoming elections). The recording supposedly demonstrated that she and Kem Sokha were involved in an extramarital affair. On March 11, 2016, when questioned by counterterrorism officers, she denied all allegations. On March 18, she received a second summons, this time from the Phnom Penh court prosecutor, to reply to the accusation she had lied to the counterterrorism unit and that her relationship with Kem Sokha was one of prostitution.
Srey Mom continued to seek assistance from ADHOC. According to records released by the group, she said that the tapes were faked, there had been no affair with Kem Sokha, she was being intimidated by the authorities, and was suffering livelihood difficulties. As it routinely does for victims of alleged government abuses, ADHOC provided Srey Mom with a small sum of money for expenses, including to help her attend court, and assigned her a lawyer. On April 19, 2016, when she appeared with her lawyer before the prosecution, she reversed her denial of having an affair with Kem Sokha. On April 22, she issued an open letter alleging that the four ADHOC staffers and UN employee Son Saly had enticed her to lie to the authorities by sticking to her original story and suggested that she should leave Cambodia.
On April 23, 2016, the Ministry of Justice, which has a controlling influence over the Cambodian judiciary, cited Srey Mom’s letter and “condemned unreservedly the law-violating conduct” of ADHOC and the UN, and called for “the competent authorities” to “take the most vigorous legal measures” against them. ADHOC publicly denied any wrongdoing and distributed internal records backing up its contention that it had acted entirely in accordance with legal and professional standards for human rights work.
On April 25, the five current and former ADHOC staffers were summoned to present themselves for questioning on April 27 and 28 by the government’s Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), which has judicial police authority to investigate allegations of bribing a witness. The ACU is headed by CPP Central Committee member and long-term Hun Sen confidante Om Yentieng. On April 28, 2016, the ACU placed the five in custody, and on May 1, it brought them before the Phnom Penh court. While in ACU custody, they were not given access to legal counsel.