Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

UN experts concerned over intimidation of rights defender

Licadho Deputy Director Am Sam Ath attends a meeting at Council Minister to verify the report on human rights abuses as a result of MFI debt on September 2019. Panha Chhorpoan

A groupof United Nations human rights experts have sought clarification from the government over the public intimidation of a human rights defender for Licadho following comments he made in the media that led to the threat of arrest.

Four special rapporteurs from the UN Human Rights Office wrote a letter released July 28 to the Foreign Minister concerning the recentpublic intimidation of Licadho Deputy Director Am Sam Ath following his comments on COVID-19. 

“We are concerned that the public condemnation of and threat to arrest Mr. Am Sam Ath appear directly linked to his work in defense of human rights, and designed to curb the exercise of his right to freedom of expression and his right to defend human rights,” the experts say in the letter.

The letter goes on to raise concerns about how public threats made against a human rights defender can have “a chilling effect on freedom of expression” and can contribute to an environment of self-censorship and a limited space for civil society.

It details several cases in which Sam Ath had been singled outby the government since 2017, with the most recent case occurring in March.

On March 29, Radio Free Asia aired a broadcast in which Sam Ath commented on the recent wave of arrests of citizens expressing their concerns about the Covid-19 virus on Facebook, saying they were politically motivated.

As a result, Prime Minister Hun Sen said during a March 31 press conference on the government’s response to Covid-19 that Sam Ath had criticized the government for arresting individuals selling fake virus tests and medicine, and alleged that the rights defender’s comments made him criminally liable as an accomplice. The prime ministerthen warned Sam Ath to be very careful about commenting on matters relating to Covid-19, saying he could be arrested for supporting illegal activities.

In a response sent July 14 and also made public July 28, the permanent mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the UN Office in Geneva said the National Police “always works in cooperation and close relationship with civil society organizations with a goal of respecting and protecting human rights.”

The letter also requested that civil society officials file precise information on the alleged intimidation of Sam Ath to authorities for further review.

“Furthermore, they should not engage in dissemination and exaggeration of any unverified information, which instills fears into the people and results in social and instability,” the letter adds, referring to “stakeholders” and the media.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said July 28 that he wasn’t aware of the UN special rapporteurs’ letter, but emphasized that Cambodia’s laws govern everyone in the country, including foreigners.

“As long as they have broken the law, they will face the law and it is not necessary to listen to the UN,” he said.

“Even if the UN [officials] have committed a crime against Cambodia’s laws, they will be arrested just the same,” Sopheak said.

“Cambodia does not need pressure from the UN. Why did they give us a 60-day [response period]?,” he said, referring to the timeframe in which the experts had requested a reply. “Cambodia and the UN are not the same.”

Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Koung said the ministry has not yet received the UN’s letter, so could not provide comment.

Sam Ath could not be reached for comment.