Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends the celebration marking the 64th anniversary of the country's independence from France, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 9, 2017. 

© 2017 Samrang Pring/Reuters
(Bangkok) – Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has called for the interior ministry to investigate and shut the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), a leading human rights group, Human Rights Watch said. The statement appeared linked to the politically motivated prosecution of political opposition leader Kem Sokha and the dissolution of his Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Donor governments should immediately call on the Cambodian government to end its baseless investigation of the CCHR, which was founded by Kem Sokha, and permit the organization to continue its human rights work, Human Rights Watch said.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen needed little time after shutting down the main opposition party to go after a major human rights group,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The prime minister is showing his fear not only of free elections, but of free expression and association.”

In a speech to garment workers on November 26, 2017, Hun Sen said that: “The Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh must be closed down, because this one does what it’s told by foreigners. … The Ministry of Interior should look it over because this one was created by foreigners, not by the Khmer.” He added, “If it’s a foreign organization that someone comes to create by asking our authorization, that’s OK, but this was by this one person of Khmer nationality, which foreigners had created to do this and do that.”

Kem Sokha established the CCHR in 2002 and resigned from the group in 2007 to return to politics. The center, based in Phnom Penh, has worked on various issues to promote respect for fundamental rights recognized under international human rights law. These include human rights education, rural land rights, and the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. The center has also provided free legal aid to victims of human rights violations.

In recent months, the Cambodian government has engaged in an intensified crackdown against the political opposition, the independent media, and human rights groups. On September 3, the government arrested Kem Sokha on dubious charges of treason and threatened to arrest other senior CNRP members. On November 16, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and imposed political bans of five years on 118 of its members.

The government has also forced the closure of the Cambodia Daily paper; independent local radio stations; and FM stations that re-broadcast Radio Free Asia, based in Washington, DC, and Voice of America’s Khmer language service. On November 25, a court charged two journalists, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, with espionage for filing news reports to Radio Free Asia, which the government expelled in September.

The government crackdown included the arbitrary detention and prosecution in 2016 and 2017 of four senior staff members of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) and a former staff member. The so-called “ADHOC Five” were held in pretrial detention for 427 days until released on bail on June 29. However, the authorities are proceeding with their prosecution and the five still face 5 to 10 years in prison and limits to their freedom of movement and ability to carry out human rights work.

At least 20 of the approximately 36 opposition and civil society activists arbitrarily arrested since May 2015 remain imprisoned; many of them were prosecuted in summary trials that fell far short of international standards.

The current crackdown appears motivated by concerns that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) may lose national elections scheduled for July 29, 2018. The CNRP made significant electoral gains during both the 2013 national elections and the June 2017 commune elections. The dissolution of the CNRP means that there will be no significant opposition party to challenge the CPP in 2018.

The United States and the European Union have threatened action in response to the crackdown but should do more. Cambodia’s donors and trade partners, including Australia and Japan, should also impose targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on Hun Sen and senior members of the CPP and armed forces, Human Rights Watch said.

“Hun Sen’s increasing attacks on Cambodia’s human rights groups are nearing the point of no return,” Adams said. “Without a legitimate political opposition in the country, Cambodians need a vibrant and independent civil society more than ever.”