In light of heightened targeting of human rights defenders and environmental activists, civil society groups have started an online campaign calling for the release of those who have been imprisoned while exercising their freedom of expression.
Some 20 civil society organizations launched the campaign on August 11 to show support to jailed activists. The campaign will be carried out until International Human Rights Day on December 10 and consists of weekly advocacy for the release of the imprisoned while shedding light on their work.
The campaign is in its sixth week now. But government officials say that public awareness drives such as this won’t influence legal proceedings against the activists, which authorities have denied are politically motivated.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said the imprisoned activists had only been expressing their opinions, a right which is guaranteed by the constitution.
“They all are human rights defenders that have just fulfilled their obligation in carrying out rights of assembly and freedom of expression,” he said.
“Our campaign urges the protection of environmental activists and human rights defenders, and encourages people who want to join in protecting the environment and natural resources.”
Sam Ath said the campaign has won attention from national and international figures, including foreign embassies. He said the campaign also highlights the courage of activists, stating their work should be honored, rather than met with arrest.
So far, organizers have posted on social media several images of prisoners such as union leader Rong Chhun and dozens of environmental activists from groups including Mother Nature, Khmer Thavrak and the Khmer Student Intelligent League.
Some posts compared environmental activists from other countries who had won awards for their work to those in Cambodia, who organizers stated were given only handcuffs and imprisonment for their efforts.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said this campaign is yet another call on the Royal Government to drop all charges against imprisoned human rights defenders and activists and to release them immediately and unconditionally. She described this as a first crucial step towards redressing the human rights situation in the Kingdom.
“Human rights defenders and activists operate in an increasingly dangerous and restrictive environment in which imprisonment has become a common price to pay by those who speak out for human rights in Cambodia,” she said, adding that the CCHR and other civil society organizations have witnessed in past years a continued worsening of the human rights situation.
“The government has used a wide array of repressive tactics and heavily relied on the subservient judiciary to harass those who dare to express views and opinions that do not align with those of the country’s leaders,” Sopheap said.
The past year has seen a spate of arrests of activists from various groups.
Last month, union leader Rong Chhun was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison on incitement charges for comments he made suggesting that a community along the Vietnam border had lost land during the frontier’s demarcation. Activists Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol were sentenced to 20 months in prison on the incitement charges to cause social disorder for having publicly called for the imprisoned unionist’s release.
In May, three environmental activists convicted earlier this year on incitement charges were sentenced to 18 to 20 months imprisonment related to a planned protest.
The trio, members of the environmental group Mother Nature, have been in prison since September 2020, when they were arrested for planning a one-woman march to raise awareness of the impact of filling in lakes for development in the capital. They have been handed a new charge of ‘plotting’ by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Government representatives have denied that legal actions against activists are intended to crack down on dissent. Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told CamboJA that this latest advocacy campaign has a political nature that cannot help imprisoned defendants. Malin also said it is not unusual to arrest and convict activists who have broken the law.
“It isn’t a legal means to protect the defendants,” he said of the social media drive, dismissing the idea of honoring activists who he said had caused chaos in society. “It encourages some bad people to continue to break up the law and provoke a risk to the nation.”
On November 28, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court will pass down a verdict against a dozen activists with Khmer Thavrak and the Khmer Students Intelligent League who were arrested last year and charged with incitement for protesting Rong Chhun’s arrest.
Ty Mari, the mother of imprisoned Mother Nature activist Hun Vannak, told CamboJA she hopes the court will drop charges against her son and release him from prison.
“It is injustice because my son has engaged in social activities from his heart — no one is behind him,” she said, explaining that her son had just practiced his freedom of expression like other youths who are concerned about environmental issues.
“I think that my son didn’t do anything wrong, seriously. He just raised his voice and did not harm others, so the court will understand not to sentence him,” Mari said.
(Additional reporting by Sam Sopich)