During the year, Prime Minister Hun Sen intensified his crackdown on the political opposition, as well as land activists, trade union leaders, civil society activists, and critical media outlets.
Cambodia’s politicized courts pursued a series of mass trials against more than 100 political opposition members and dozens of human rights defenders. Prosecutors claimed the defendants engaged in “incitement to commit a felony” simply by exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful public assembly. Cambodia currently has more than 50 political prisoners behind bars.
In the lead-up to the June 2022 commune elections, the government obstructed and harassed members of the revived Candlelight Party, the largest opposition party contesting against the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP). The National Election Commission and the CPP filed defamation charges against Candlelight Party Vice-President Son Chhay for criticizing the conduct of the election.
New Rights-Abusing Laws and Bills
Under the guise of combatting the Covid-19 pandemic, the government used the 2021 Law on Measures to Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and other Serious, Dangerous and Contagious Diseases to interfere with activists’ right to peaceful assembly. The law provided officials with unfettered powers to punish so-called offenders of Covid-19 measures with up to 20-year prison sentences. The law contains overly broad provisions and lacks independent oversight or procedural safeguards. In March 2022, the United Nations Human Rights Committee reviewed Cambodia’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and noted that over 700 arrests were made between March and October 2021 based on the law.
In February 2021, authorities adopted the Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway, which will enhance the government’s powers to monitor all internet activities and block and disconnect internet connections. However, authorities have yet to formally implement the decree as scheduled, starting in February 2022, leaving the decree looming over Cambodian internet users. Other laws such as the Telecommunications Law of 2016 already empower the government to conduct intrusive online surveillance.
In January 2022, the Ministry of Interior stated its intention to draft a foreign interference law modelled on Singapore’s oppressive Foreign Interference Act, but no draft had been publicly released at time of writing.
During the year, authorities provided several public updates on their efforts to draft a law to establish a national human rights institution. However, they did not release a draft of the law, nor indicate whether it would conform with the Paris Principles to ensure the body will be independent, impartial, and effective. to ensure the body will be independent, impartial, and effective.
Freedom of Association and Assembly
In 2022, the government enforced a de facto ban on peaceful assembly. Authorities used public health measures to end peaceful, legitimate strikes. The government also stepped up its crackdown on independent unions and their rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly, and to strike.
The government used the Covid-19 public health crisis as an excuse to forcibly break up the peaceful strike of the Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees of NagaWorld (LRSU), who were protesting in central Phnom Penh to demand the reinstatement of dismissed workers and fair compensation in their protracted labor dispute with NagaWorld casino. Uniformed police and plainclothes officers used excessive force to shove strikers onto city buses and transport them to sub-par quarantine centers in remote areas on the outskirts of Phnom Penh where they were then stranded.
In December 2021, authorities arrested, detained, and prosecuted dozens of union activists based on allegations that the strike was “illegal”. On February 5, police arrested six activist union members at Phnom Penh’s NagaWorld casino as they left a Covid-19 testing site and baselessly charged three of them with obstructing the government’s Covid-19 efforts. This followed the jailing of eight LRSU unionists, including the union president, Chhim Sithar, on “incitement” charges. While all were eventually released on bail, charges remained pending against them, meaning they can be detained again at any time.
Attacks Against the Political Opposition
Prior to the commune elections on June 5, 2022, authorities violated the rights of opposition Candlelight Party members by removing as many as 150 candidates from Cambodia’s National Election Committee lists, arresting party activists, threatening candidates to withdraw their candidacies or face spurious criminal charges and prosecution, and interfering in the election campaign. Despite these obstacles, the Candlelight Party won 18 percent of the national vote—but that translated into only 4 commune chief positions out of a total of 1,652 commune chief seats being elected. seats being elected.
Starting with court summons issued in November 2020, prosecutors launched mass trials in 2021 that continued into 2022 against more than 100 people connected with the dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), as well as civil society activists.
On March 17, a Phnom Penh court convicted 20 opposition politicians and activists, plus one defendant’s relative, and sentenced them to between 5 and 10 years in prison. The court also convicted in absentia a total of seven persons abroad and sentenced them to 10-year prison sentences based on three counts of unsubstantiated charges of “incitement,” “inciting military personnel to disobedience,” and “conspiracy.” These charges allegedly were connected to the formation of the overseas opposition Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) in 2018, and social media comments criticizing the government.
On June 14, a Phnom Penh court convicted at least 51 CNRP members and political activists on unsupported charges of “incitement” and “conspiracy.” Twelve defendants received eight-year prison sentences while another 19 defendants got six years in prison. Another 20 defendants received five-year suspended sentences. A total of 27 defendants are currently in exile and were tried in absentia. The case related to the support for Sam Rainsy’s attempted return to Cambodia in November 2019, and the activities of the dissolved CNRP and overseas CNRM.
The co-leader of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, continued to face trumped-up treason charges and onerous restrictions on his political rights, and the court slow-walked the ongoing conduct of his trial, claiming prosecutors no longer deemed his case a “priority.”
Freedom of Media
On August 16, 2022, officers from the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit (BHQ) arbitrarily detained five journalists affiliated with the independent news outlet, Voice of Democracy (VOD News), and four environmental defenders affiliated with the Khmer Thavrak group. The journalists and environmental defenders were reporting on forest clearing activities in Phnom Tamao forest in southern Cambodia, where up to 500 hectares of forest are believed to have been cut down in a week at the beginning of August. The authorities forcibly confiscated the reporters’ equipment and accused them of spreading false information.
In September, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Court of Cambodia (ECCC) ruled to deny the appeal of Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan and upheld his conviction for genocide and crimes against humanity. His sentence of life imprisonment remained the same. With this action, the work of the ECCC was completed, having convicted three persons at a cost of approximately US$330 million since the court was established in 1997.
Key International Actors
The Chinese government is the country’s primary economic and political partner, investing US$1.29 billion during the first half of 2022. On January 1, the China-Cambodia Free Trade Agreement (CCFTA) came into effect, under which “China and Cambodia agree to impose zero tariffs on over 90 percent of products and commit to an open market in services”. The agreement also commits to boost cooperation under China’s “Belt and Road Initiative,” despite concerns about human rights violations in those projects.
During the 11th Cambodia-EU Joint Committee Meeting in March, the European Union reiterated its call on the government to uphold “democratic pluralism, human rights and fundamental freedoms, labor rights, and the rule of law.” Hun Sen’s failure to backtrack on its human rights crackdown continues to cost the country the partial withdrawal of its “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade benefits with the EU. Arms” (EBA) trade benefits with the EU.
In May, the European Parliament condemned the Cambodian government’s continuing abuses and reiterated its call on the EU Council to adopt targeted sanctions against Cambodia’s political leadership and leaders of the security forces responsible for the crackdown in the country. It urged the EU to consider a full withdrawal of Cambodia’s EBA privileges.
In May, the United States hosted Prime Minister Hun Sen at a United States-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Special Summit at the White House ahead of the ASEAN Summit chaired and hosted by Cambodia, in an effort to strengthen engagement and shore up alliances with ASEAN countries.
A French court issued arrest warrants against two senior Cambodian generals for the grenade attack on an opposition political rally in Phnom Penh on March 30, 1997, which killed 16 people and injured more than 150. The court stated that it also issued a summons for Prime Minister Hun Sen for his role in the attack, but the French government blocked its delivery, citing head of state immunity.