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Rong Chhun leads a demonstration by laid-off workers in Phnom Penh, July 24, 2020. © 2020 Radio Free Asia

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian authorities should immediately drop incitement charges and release an outspoken trade union leader and rights activist, Human Rights Watch said today.

On the evening of July 31, 2020, the authorities arrested Rong Chhun, president of the independent Cambodian Confederation of Unions, without an arrest warrant at his home in Phnom Penh, alleging he was committing an in flagrante delicto (caught in the act) offense. On August 1, the Phnom Penh municipal court charged him with “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s penal code and sent him to pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1. The charges against Rong Chhun appear to be linked to his recent advocacy for the land rights of villagers living near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.

“The arrest of Rong Chhun is the latest example of unrelenting government repression against activists trying to protect ordinary Cambodians’ basic rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The European Union should add this outrage to the long list of rights abuses that need to be resolved in negotiations over ‘Everything But Arms’ trade preferences.”

Rong Chhun is a vocal union leader and political activist who for years has fought for human rights and workers’ rights in Cambodia. He is also active in opposition politics. He has long raised concerns about the demarcation of the border between Vietnam and Cambodia. He repeatedly met with affected Cambodian villagers to hear their concerns that newly determined border demarcations encroach on their land.

On July 20, Rong Chhun visited Cambodia’s Tbong Khmom province and spoke with aggrieved villagers who told him they had been prevented from farming because of new border demarcations. He issued a statement for Cambodia Council Watch, summarizing his findings and citing “irregularities” with the placement of border posts that resulted in the loss of “hundreds of hectares” of land belonging to Cambodian farmers.

On July 31, the government’s Border Affairs Committee issued a statement rejecting Rong Chhun’s findings and accused him of spreading “fake news” about border demarcations.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia on July 31, shortly before his arrest, Rong Chhun responded to the government’s statement and urged the Border Affairs Committee to visit the border provinces themselves and speak to the aggrieved villagers.

Rong Chhun has faced repeated government harassment for his rights advocacy and political activities. On December 11, 2018, the Phnom Penh court convicted Rong Chhun and five other union leaders of “intentional acts of violence with aggravating circumstances,” and sentenced them each to two and a half years of suspended prison sentences and total compensatory damages of five million riel (US$1,250) for two plaintiffs. The case relates to their alleged role in the 2014 Veng Sreng Boulevard protests that turned violent, and in which police and gendarmes attacked unarmed workers and bystanders. There is no evidence linking those convicted to the violence.

In recent years, the Cambodian government has increased its harassment of independent union leaders and labor advocates. In 2016, the government adopted a repressive Trade Union Law that has severely curtailed the ability of unions to register, bargain collectively, and represent workers, as well as undercut access to the Arbitration Council for unions to settle their labor disputes.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen should stop muzzling labor unionists, human rights defenders, and other critics of government policies,” Robertson said. “Foreign governments should publicly raise the plight of Rong Chhun and jointly appeal to the Cambodian government to put an end to this onslaught on human rights.”

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