(New York) – The Cambodian government should immediately release Sam Sokha, a Cambodian labor activist who gained notoriety after she threw a sandal at a photo of Prime Minister Hun Sen in April 2017, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 8, 2018, Thai authorities forcibly returned Sam Sokha, who had been detained in Bangkok in January, to Cambodia.
Video of her act was circulated widely on social media. Shortly thereafter, Cambodian authorities issued a warrant for her arrest for “insult of a public official” and “incitement to discriminate” under articles 494, 496, and 502 of the Cambodia Criminal Code. As a result, she was forced to flee Cambodia and seek asylum in Thailand. In Thailand, she was interviewed and formally recognized as a refugee by UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. Forcibly returning her violates the customary international law principle of non-refoulement, which prohibits the return of anyone to a place where they would face the threat of persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.
“Thailand was fully aware of Sam Sokha’s status as a refugee, yet still returned her to Cambodia, where she is likely to face a prison term for expressing her political views,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It’s sad but not surprising that a military junta would do a favor for a neighboring dictator, but they should not cement their friendship at the expense of a refugee.”
Sam Sokha was arrested on January 5 by Thai authorities in Bangkok. The Suan Phlu Immigration Detention Center investigation team reported to Sam Sokha’s lawyers that they received a request for cooperation from Cambodia on her case. On January 6, Sam Sokha was charged for illegal entry under section 81 of the Immigration Act.
On January 22, Sam Sokha’s lawyers sent a letter via registered mail to the Thai National Security Council, Thai police, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Immigration Bureau informing the Thai authorities of Sam Sokha’s intention to appeal her immigration charges and putting on record her refusal to return to Cambodia. On February 2, Sam Sokha’s lawyers filed an appeal relating to unlawful entry charges.
On February 8, Thailand forcibly returned Sam Sokha to Cambodia. The Thai government forcibly sent her back knowing that western embassies and the UNHCR were involved in trying to find her a third country resettlement option.
The UN, Cambodia’s donors, and countries that support refugee rights should press Cambodia to release Sam Sokha and to allow her to be travel to a safe country.
“Thailand’s friends should formally and publicly complain about this shocking act of sending a refugee back to a country where she will face near-certain persecution,” Adams said. “This case sets a worrisome precedent for how Thailand will treat the many other refugees currently on its soil.”