The newly appointed president of rights group Adhoc urged the government to release all prisoners of conscience before the 2022 commune election as a step to ensuring a more democratic society.
Ny Sokha, who took the position on July 1, spoke to CamboJA in an exclusive interview at his home last week. A former political prisoner himself, Sokha has spent years fighting to improve human rights in Cambodia.
“We request the government to release all prisoners of conscience and drop all charges against political prisoners including political, human rights and environmental activists before the commune election to create an election environment that is free, fair and just.”
He said that the human rights situation has been worsening in recent years, particularly since the 2017 dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), explaining that democratic rights and human rights go hand in hand.
“When democracy goes down, human rights also go down,” Sokha said. He urged the government to restore democracy, warning that the economy depends on fundamental economic assistance from the US and EU—which tie trade preferences to human rights metrics.
“If the government does not restore this issue, Cambodia will meet a serious crisis while it is still struggling with COVID-19,” he said.
Born in 1972 in Prey Veng province’s Pea Raing district, Sokha was the fifth youngest among six siblings. After graduating high school in 1991, he began working as a volunteer for Adhoc a year later. He studied law, receiving a Masters in Public Law from Build Bright University in 2008 and worked his way up from an education program officer to deputy head of dispute resolutions, to head of the human rights monitoring unit in 2016. When former Adhoc president Thun Saray formally retired last month, Sokha was elected as his replacement.
Sokha’s appointment means the rights group has an in-country president for the first time in more than five years. In May 2016, the Adhoc chief left the country amid arrest threats for his work trying to secure releases for Sokha and four other rights workers arrested in a bribery case.
The so-called Adhoc five, which included staffers Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony, as well as Ny Chakrya, a former staffer who became an election official, were accused of bribing a witness to lie about her relationship with CNRP president Kem Sokha. Sentenced to five years in prison, Sokha and the others served 14 months before their sentences were suspended. Adhoc, which provided legal and financial assistance to the witness at her request, denied the allegations and the case was widely condemned as politically motivated.
Years after his release, meanwhile, Sokha noted that the case is still open at the appeal court level, meaning he and his co-defendants remain in legal limbo.
“Even though the sentence has been suspended our case is still kept at the appeal court,” said Sokha.
While Adhoc and other rights groups in Cambodia have a reputation as a thorn in the government’s side, Sokha stressed that the organization tries to work with the government as much as possible.
“We are not enemies of the government….but we just work to fill any hole in the government to promote human rights and democracy and the respect of law,” Sokha said.
But the work comes with its own dangers.
“We have big challenges in the society, so human rights defenders are always threatened and arrested and charged,” Sokha said. In the past, he noted, activists were threatened with violence but now the government goes after them through the court system, frequently through charges like incitement and defamation.
Sokha commended his predecessor, who he said set a “good example for our next generation to learn from,” and who will stay on as an advisor.
“We will continue to do the work of Mr Thun Saray and especially, we will continue his mission to defend human rights, democracy and justice in the society,” Sokha said.
In December, Adhoc will celebrate its 30th anniversary. Speaking from Canada, where he remains in self-exile, Saray said the idea for a rights organization came to him during the 17 months he spent in prison after advocating for human rights in the early 1990s.
“I was determined while in prison that when I was released, I would not do any work besides human rights work,” Saray said. In the years since Adhoc opened its first office, in May 1992 in Saravan Pagoda, Cambodians have become far more aware of their basic human rights, said Saray. That, in turn, has earned the organization no small number of enemies.
“Adhoc helps weak or poor people to understand their human rights, so it makes the people who abuse human rights unhappy with Adhoc,” he said.
“Someday, I will return to Cambodia because Cambodia is my hometown,” he added.
Over three decades, the staff has faced plenty of threats, but he said they remain committed to the cause.
“In my heart, I want to see our society become good in the future,” he said, adding that the mantle had been passed from his generation to the next.
“The people do not live on only rice. They have rice to eat but they also need freedom,” said Saray.
Pa Chanroeun, president of Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said Adhoc has played an important role in pushing the government to follow the law as well as helping victims of rights violations.
“Even though Cambodia has not had civil war since 1998, issues in society still occur, especially serious and systematic human rights abuses,” Chanroeun said. “Our country still has political crisis and human right abuses and Adhoc is still an important association to promote the respect for human rights.”
Chanroeun echoed Sokha’s call for the release of political prisoners, saying that critics played an important role in improving the nation. He also urged that the government restore a vigorous multiparty democracy.
“The international community, including Europe, the US and other countries who signed the Paris Peace Agreement always issue statements of concern about bettering human rights and the democratic process in Cambodia,” said Chanroeun.
According to Adhoc, dozens of imprisoned Cambodians are considered prisoners of conscience, meaning they have been arrested for political beliefs. The government, however, disputes those figures, and insists that all convictions are on criminal grounds.
Chin Malin, spokesman for the Justice Ministry and vice president of the government’s Cambodian Human Right Committee, denied that Cambodia has any political prisoners and urged rights groups to follow court procedures if they wished to dispute a conviction.
He also noted that Cambodia has improved considerably over the years.
“No country is perfect related to human rights, so they are encouraged to do the best to improve the situation over time,” said Malin.
And Malin took aim more generally at rights groups, saying they stirred up controversy unnecessarily.
“Some organizations act as political organizations, which means they criticize the government and take the government as an enemy only to get popular support from citizens,” he added.
But for Cambodians who have few other resources, rights groups have proved a critical lifeline.
Long Sokunthy, 50, a resident in Banteay Meanchey province, said she and hundreds of her neighbors struggled after a tycoon laid claim to 1,430 hectares of their land. After protesting, she was sentenced to a year in prison for invasion of privacy and private property damage. With nowhere else to turn, she and her neighbors approached Adhoc which helped mediate the dispute and provided her with free legal support.
“If we did not have Adhoc, no one could help me to find justice at the provincial court,” she said. “I want Adhoc to remain in Cambodia for a long time to help the poor people who are victims.”