(Bangkok) – Thai immigration officials forcibly returned two Cambodian refugees on November 9, putting them at risk of unfair trials in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodian authorities should immediately drop the politically motivated charges against Veourn Veasna and Voeung Samnang, and unconditionally release them.
On November 8, Thai police arrested Veasna, a Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) online TV broadcaster, and Samnang, a former CNRP commune official. The next day, Thai authorities deported them to Cambodia even though the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had already intervened. Both men were registered refugees under UNHCR protection. Cambodian authorities have transferred both men to a prison facility, Correctional Center 1 (CC1), in Phnom Penh.
“Thailand’s forcible return of these two refugees shows a blatant disregard for fundamental refugee protection principles,” said Bill Frelick, refugee and migrants director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai government’s actions make it complicit in the Cambodian government’s persecution of its political opponents, which appears to extend beyond Cambodia’s borders.”
Since the Cambodian government-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in 2017, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has pursued a crackdown on former CNRP members. The authorities have carried out dozens of arbitrary arrests and brought baseless criminal charges.
In September 2019, Cambodian prosecutors charged Samnang with conspiracy and incitement to commit a felony. Samnang fled to Thailand in 2020 and applied for and received refugee status from UNHCR. Samnang created several Facebook accounts and pages under his name, on which he shared posts by the CNRP leader Sam Rainsy that criticized the Cambodian government on various political issues, including the government’s Covid-19 response.
Because of the crackdown on the CNRP, Veasna fled to Thailand in early 2020 and applied for and received refugee status from the UNHCR. In April 2021, the authorities charged him with incitement to commit a felony under Articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code and obstruction of Covid-19 measures under Article 11 of the Law on the Prevention of the Spread of Covid-19 and Other Contagious Diseases. Veasna created several Facebook accounts and pages under the name “Kranhoung Prey Lang.” A poem he wrote labelling Hun Sen a traitor led the prime minister to call for Veasna’s arrest in October.
Forced returns of Cambodian refugees appear to have been facilitated by the Cambodia-Thailand “fugitive” arrangement that Prime Minister Hun Sen and Thai Prime Minister Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha reportedly reached in 2018. Dozens of Thai “Red Shirt” political activists are still believed to be in hiding in Cambodia following the 2014 coup in Thailand, while dozens of Cambodian activists have sought refuge in Thailand following the Cambodian government’s crackdown on the political opposition. In recent months, Cambodian refugees hiding in Bangkok have reported escalating levels of surveillance and threats by unidentified people whom they believe are Cambodian officials.
Thai authorities have repeatedly violated the rights of Cambodians who have fled to Thailand to seek refuge. In early 2018, Sam Sokha, a labor and opposition activist, fled to Thailand to avoid arrest after a video showing her throwing a shoe at an election campaign billboard of Hun Sen went viral. In Thailand, she applied to UNHCR for refugee status. Nevertheless, Thai authorities arrested and forcibly returned her to Cambodia after receiving an extradition request. Cambodia courts convicted her twice and sentenced her to two separate two-year prison sentences.
In December 2018, the Thai authorities arrested and deported Rath Rott Mony, the former president of the Cambodian Construction Workers Trade Union Federation, based on his role in the production of a documentary about sex trafficking in Cambodia. After he was forcibly returned to Cambodia, a court convicted him of incitement, sentenced him to two years in prison, and ordered him to pay 70 million riels (US$17,200) in compensation to two plaintiffs. Mony and his family had been in the process of seeking refugee status in Thailand when he was deported.
The international refugee law principle of nonrefoulement provides that no one should be returned to a country where they are likely to face persecution, torture, or other serious harm. The 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Cambodia is a party, prohibits the return of a refugee “in any manner whatsoever,” which would include extradition. While Thailand is not a party to the Refugee Convention, it is bound to the principle of nonrefoulement under customary international law and as a state party to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
“Thailand and Cambodia’s leaders appear to have cut a deal that puts the rights of refugees at grave risk,” Frelick said. “Refugee protection should never be sacrificed as part of deal-making between governments seeking to harass and pursue political opponents in exile.”