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Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC) supporters march to the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh on May 22, 2023, to demand the release of three of their members charged with plotting and incitement.  © LICADHO

(Bangkok) – A Cambodian court brought politically motivated charges against three land rights activists on May 22, 2023, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately and unconditionally release them.

The Ratanakiri Municipal Court brought charges against three staff members of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), a community organization that defends land rights of farmers. The court charged them with plotting and incitement under articles 453 (plotting), 494, and 495 (incitement to commit a felony) of the Cambodian criminal code, and ordered them placed in pretrial detention. If convicted on all charges, the three activists could face between 5 to 10 years in prison, and fines.

“Fabricating these bogus charges against prominent civil society leaders shows how far the government is willing to go to silence critics in advance of the Cambodia elections in July,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There needs to be a chorus of international condemnation targeting Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government to demand an end to these intimidating tactics.”

The authorities detained Theng Savoeun, president of the farmers’ group; Nhel Pheap, a senior officer; and Than Hach, a project officer on May 17 while they were traveling to Phnom Penh after holding an internal team building and training workshop in Ratanakiri province.

Based on information the authorities said they found about the workshop, Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak accused the CCFC of starting a “peasant revolution.” He claimed without presenting any evidence that the three CCFC leaders were involved in revolutionary activities similar to those that caused the deaths of millions of Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s.

Media reported that the police stopped the bus carrying the organization’s staff members and pulled 17 staff off the bus. Police questioned them continuously from around 1 p.m. until approximately 10 a.m. the next day. Questions reportedly focused on the content and focus of the training workshop.

While other staff were released, the police continued to hold the three leaders. The three were briefly allowed access to a lawyer on May 19, but the police did not allow them to meet privately, a right guaranteed by international human rights law and article 98 of the Cambodian criminal procedure code. The lawyers were barred from meeting with the three as questioning continued through the weekend.

The CCFC works to support the land rights of farmers across the country. On May 18, CCFC communities organized and traveled to Phnom Penh to publicly protest, calling for the release of their detained leaders. However, in Koh Kong province, police stopped a minivan carrying members of the group and prevented them from leaving the province. On May 19, more than 200 farmers from five provinces gathered in front of the Interior Ministry with a petition demanding the immediate release of Savoeun and his two colleagues.

“Cambodia’s human rights situation is spiraling inexorably downward to the point where the government responds to any sort of challenge, real or perceived, with a maximum display of intimidation and punishment,” Robertson said. “This campaign starts at the top, with Prime Minister Hun Sen as he pursues another fake electoral mandate from a rigged election.”

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