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The human rights situation in Cambodia deteriorated markedly in 2012 with a surge in violent incidents, as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) prepared for national elections scheduled for July 28, 2013. On June 1, Prime Minister Hun Sen reached his 10,000th day (more than 27 years) in office, making him one of the 10 longest-serving leaders in the world. The prime minister, now 60, has said he wants to remain in office until he is 90. 

Violence involving state security forces occurred amidst increasing land-taking by powerful business and security interests, and growing labor unrest due to dissatisfaction with an economic policy that relies heavily on state authorities’ often-corrupt promotion of unbridled foreign investment, especially via granting economic and other land concessions, which continued despite the government’s May 2012 announcement of a moratorium. 

Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy remained in exile in France rather than face prison sentences totaling 12 years as a result of politically motivated and manifestly unfair trials. At least 35 other political and social activists and residents involved in defending human rights, opposing land grabs, and demanding better working conditions were killed, wounded, arbitrarily arrested, threatened with arrest, or kept in exile by CPP-led security forces and the CPP-controlled judiciary.  

Cambodian judicial officers working at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) continued to implement Hun Sen’s pronouncements by refusing to investigate additional Khmer Rouge suspects, including CPP-linked perpetrators from Pol Pot’s 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime. At the same time, as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Cambodia’s government played a leading role in stymying efforts by regional civil society organizations to adopt a credible and effective human rights mechanism.

Attacks, Harassment, and Prosecutions against Activists and Protesters

On February 20, three young women factory workers were wounded by gunfire during a large peaceful protest demanding increased wages and allowances for foreign enterprise employees in Bavet municipality of Svay Rieng province, eastern Cambodia. While evidence suggests that the CPP mayor, Chhouk Bandit, intentionally fired directly into the crowd, a provincial court only placed him under investigation for unintentional injury without holding him for trial.

On April 26, noted environmental activist Chhut Wutthy was shot dead after military police and company security guards stopped him from documenting illegal logging activities in Koh Kong province, southwestern Cambodia. Although the exact circumstances of his death remain unclear, government and judicial investigations into his killing appeared designed to shield those most responsible and further conceal their unlawful economic activities. The killing had a chilling effect on efforts by others to uncover similar activities.

On May 16, security force gunfire killed Heng Chantha, a 14-year-old girl, during a government military operation against villagers in Kratie province, eastern Cambodia, who were protesting the allegedly illegal seizure of their land by a foreign concessionaire. Instead of launching a criminal investigation into police conduct, Hun Sen accused protesters of organizing a “secessionist movement” and then ordered the arrest of its leaders.

The government also used the incident to falsely accuse Mom Sonando—the 71-year-old owner of Cambodia’s main independent radio station and an outspoken critic of the government—of being the ringleader of the supposed secession. Sonando was arrested on July 12 and later sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment during a trial in which no credible evidence against him was presented.

The government also targeted for prosecution leading investigators of ADHOC, a major Cambodian human rights organization, apparently to punish them for their human rights activities. A court in Phnom Penh, the capital, ordered Chan Sovet to appear on August 24 inconnection with the land protests in Kratie noted above to answer allegations that he provided a small amount of humanitarian assistance to a community organizer who fled the government operation suppressing the protests, saying the aid constituted intentional assistance to aknown perpetrator of a felony. A local court in Ratanakiri province, northeastern Cambodia, summoned Pen Bonnar on October 1 in connection with land disputes there.

On May 24, prominent Buddhist monk Luon Sovath, who had on many occasions expressed sympathy and support for victims of land-grabbing, was briefly detained while en route to observe the trial of 13 women activists (the “Boeng Kak 13”) opposing evictions in Phnom Penh. On February 14, he had been secretly indicted on frivolous grounds for “incitement to commit a felony,” leaving him vulnerable to arrest at any time. Sovath was named winner of the prestigious Martin Ennals human rights prize in October.

Also on May 24, the court sentenced the 13 women, including a 72-year-old, to two-and-a-half years in prison for involvement in a campaign protesting evictions and demanding proper resettlement for people displaced by a development project owned by a Hun Sen crony and a Chinese investor in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak area. Under domestic and international pressure, an appeal court released the 13 on June 27, but upheld their convictions. 

In August and September, a provincial court repeatedly summoned Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions who is widely seen as the country’s most determined labor leader, to answer allegations that he had incited a supposedly illegal garment worker strike in a factory near Phnom Penh, also putting him at risk of imprisonment.

In early September, two more leaders of protests against urban evictions, Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony, were arrested after apparently politically motivated allegations lodged with the Phnom Penh court. They were held pending trial and faced prison sentences if convicted.

Khmer Rouge Tribunal (ECCC)

CPP political interference effected via government-appointed judges, prosecutors, and other personnel at the ECCC precipitated the resignation—with effect from May 4—of Laurent Kasper-Ansermet, an investigating judge nominated by the United Nations secretary-general. Kasper-Ansermet claimed that government interference and lack of cooperation made it impossible for him to do his job. His court submissions detailed how that interference had blocked his efforts to investigate five suspects whom Prime Minister Hun Sen had not approved.  

The CPP’s longstanding strategy of attempting to control the court via delaying tactics and passive non-cooperation contributed to reducing the prosecution of Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, and Khieu Samphan—three Hun Sen-authorized indictees among former Khmer Rouge leaders—to a “mini-trial” in which only a few of the crime against humanity counts against them would be adjudicated. It appeared unlikely that they would ever go on trial for the additional charges of genocide and war crimes laid against them in December 2009, even though the tribunal is the most expensive international or hybrid criminal tribunal ever, calculated in terms of cost per accused put on trial.

Impunity for Human Rights Violators

Hun Sen’s protection of perpetrators of Khmer Rouge crimes and failure in 2012 to credibly investigate killings involving security forces bookended a consistent pattern of impunity for human rights abuses committed during his prolonged rule. These include torture and forced labor in the 1980s, political killings when the UN attempted to midwife a democratic transition in the early 1990s, and a string of extrajudicial executions, assassinations, and attempted assassinations in the years between then and 2011.

These crimes have targeted journalists, opposition party organizers, labor leaders, activists, and intellectuals—with the dead numbering in the hundreds. The crimes, and impunity for them, have characterized Hun Sen’s rise and hold on power, and the surge of human rights violations in 2012 confirmed that he considers their perpetration as fundamental to his rule and to preventing popular and democratic challenges.

Drug Detention Centers

In December 2011, revisions to Cambodia's drug law enabled drug users to be detained for compulsory "treatment" for up to two years. Despite a March 2012 call by 12 UN agencies to close drug detention centers, various government agencies—including security forces—continued to operate 10 centers across the country. Former detainees reported that they had been held without due process, subjected to exhausting military exercises, and ill-treated and even tortured by staff. 

Migrant Workers

A 2011 government moratorium on temporary migration of Cambodians as domestic workers to Malaysia, announced after revelations of grave abuses during recruitment in Cambodia and work in Malaysia, remained in place. Officials made statements about lifting the ban, despite uncertain prospects for a Cambodian-Malaysian agreement to establish minimum protections for these migrants, and new media reports of ill-treatment of Cambodian domestic workers in Malaysia. Available statistics pointed to a general increase in the international trafficking of Cambodian workers, many of whom worked in conditions amounting to forced labor.

Key International Actors

The United States, China, and Vietnam provided security assistance to Cambodia in the form of training, equipment, or both. Although US law required that beneficiaries of its training be vetted to ensure none were human rights violators, the vetting process remained deeply flawed. There were no human rights safeguards in Chinese and Vietnamese security aid.

Japan continued to be a major provider of economic assistance without effective conditions. Large-scale state and private Chinese, Vietnamese, and South Korean aid and investment lacked any mechanisms for community participation in decisions related to land or the local environment. Conversely, the World Bank continued to withhold funding for new projects pending a satisfactory government resettlement solution for evictees from the Boeng Kak development project in Phnom Penh, while the Asian Development Bank agreed to review its performance in addressing deteriorations in living conditions suffered by people affected by a bank-financed railway project. 

The US made a number of public and private demarches to the government on specific human rights concerns, including the Boeng Kak 13. However, a September donor conference in Phnom Penh was almost silent on the deteriorating human rights situation. 

The government reacted with invective to reports by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia that recommended reforming electoral and land concession systems.