The Court of Appeal on October 20 denied bail to five environmental activists from NGOs Khmer Thavrak and Mother Nature who were charged with incitement to disturb social security, saying that imprisonment is necessary to prevent them from committing further offenses.
The two activists from Khmer Thavrak, Hun Vannak and Chhoeun Daravy, were arrested on August 15 after attending a protest in support of jailed unionist Rong Chhun outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Three activists from Mother Nature – Long Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey, and Thon Ratha – were arrested on September 3 over a social media post in which they announced plans to march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to raise awareness on environmental issues in Phnom Penh.
Only Vannak and Ratha were present at the bail hearing, which took place behind closed doors. Presiding Judge Khun Leang Meng declined to comment, saying he was busy.
Sam Chamroeun, defense lawyer for the five, said he was disappointed that the court had denied bail to the Khmer Thavrak activists and struck down the motion against detention filed on behalf of the Mother Nature members.
He also said the court had claimed that his clients were at risk of re-offending and failing to show up for their trial, which he said was unfair.
“We are disappointed and cannot accept the decision,” he said.
Chamroeun said that on behalf of the Mother Nature members, lawyers had filed a motion against detention that the judges had also denied.
“We submitted documents asking the court to reject the warrant for pretrial detention and free my clients,” he said.
“We filed the motion because there is no inculpatory evidence to charge against clients,” Chamroeun said, adding that he would meet with his clients before deciding whether to appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
Vannak’s mother, Ty Mary, 59, said she still hoped the court would drop charges against her son and free him from prison.
“[His arrest] is an injustice because he is just a youth who wants to use his freedom of expression,” she said.
“There were no crimes committed because my son just exercised his opinion to support the release of Mr. Rong Chhun,” Mary said.
She maintained that Vannak’s activities were not a disturbance to society, and that his protest was legal according to the Constitution, which guarantees citizens’ right to freely express their opinions.
She added that she had not been allowed to speak to her son when visiting the prison, and was upset that she couldn’t attend his bail hearing.
“I gave food to him through the prison guards because they do not allow us to get close to meet with him,” she said.
Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said the government should keep in mind that fundamental freedoms still apply to citizens even if authorities disagree with the opinion of the individual or group in question.
“This decision, and the ongoing crackdown against activists and human rights defenders intimidates others and deters both other activists and the public at large from exercising their freedoms, which is not fruitful for a just society,” she said via email.
She said that requiring the activists to remain in jail is “deplorable” and “amounts to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty.”
“The [government] must stop viewing activists and human rights defenders as political dissidents and release all those arbitrarily arrested for exercising their rights and freedoms,” Sopheap added.
“This decision also revives valid concerns regarding independence of the courts of Cambodia,” she added, explaining that the courts are meant to provide a check and balance on the actions of the government rather than legitimize the government’s crackdown on fundamental freedoms.
On October 17, four special rapporteurs from the UN’s Human Rights Office wrote a letter to the Cambodian government requesting additional information on the legal basis for the arrest and detention of Rong Chhun and how it complies with international human rights standards.
“The UN experts also requested additional information on the compatibility of the arrest with the right to liberty and security of person, including being informed at the time of the arrest of the reasons of his arrest,” the letter reads.
The UN experts also asked the government to clarify the legality of its decision to disperse two separate peaceful assemblies in Phnom Penh early August.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said the government would respond to the UN’s request to explain that Chhun’s detention is valid under Cambodian law.
“The government’s answer will show the factual, legal instruments and procedures of Cambodia’s court as part of a sovereign state,” he said, adding that the response would be sent from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He suggested that the UN experts did not clearly understand Cambodia’s legal procedures, saying that they are merely receiving information from one side that “has opposition tendencies.”
Besides the Mother Nature and Khmer Thavrak members who were up for bail this week, four other supporters of Chhun were also arrested in early September and charged with incitement to disturb social security for their part in planning a demonstration at Freedom Park that was prevented by authorities.
The four arrests marked a total of 13 activists accused of the same crime in the one-month period ending September 8. According to a September 22 statement from rights group Licadho, since Chhun’s arrest on July 31, a total of 19 activists, artists, and human rights defenders have been detained for exercising their constitutional rights.