UN human rights office calls for release of jailed activists4 min read

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Rong Chhun's supporters demonstrate outside the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh on August 24. Panha Chhorpoan
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The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) in Geneva has called on the Cambodian government to immediately release the 12 activists who are currently being held on incitement charges and to end its intimidation of civil society organizations.

The September 11 statement from UNOHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani expresses concern over the ongoing intimidation of human rights defenders in Cambodia, noting 24 arrests since union leader Rong Chhun was jailed charged with incitement to disturb social security on August 1.

“The current situation marks a deepening of the Government’s intolerance to dissent and repression of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” the statement says.

“We call on the Government to immediately and unconditionally release those detained for their exercise of these rights, and to bring an end to the intimidation of civil society actors. We call on the security forces to stop resorting to unnecessary and excessive force and intimidation against those engaged in peaceful protests.”

It also points out that the 13 activists who were released from jail were forced to sign agreements saying they will cease their activism or face consequences, and that many others have been threatened for participating in protests in the six weeks since Chhun’s arrest. 

“Numerous individuals have also reported receiving threatening phone calls, including death threats, if they don’t cease their human rights activism, and have reported that they are being followed,” it says. 

The statement comes as police on September 11 confirmed that two more activists had been arrested and charged.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet said the two were arrested following a court warrant in which they were accused of incitement to disturb social security.

Eng Malai, a member of Khmer Thavrak, was arrested on September 7 and Moung Sopheak, a member of the Khmer Student Intelligent Association, was arrested on September 10, with both now in pre-trial detention at Prey Sar prison, according to the police chief.

When asked about the recent statement from the UNOHCHR, Thet defended the actions of authorities.

“There is no intimidation,” he said. “When they have committed an illegal act, we will implement the law.”

“What we have brought up is the truth and if you have not committed wrong they won’t arrest you,” he added.

Moung Sopheak, a member of the Khmer Student Intelligent Association who was arrested September 10, is blocked by security guards as he attempts to attend a demonstration at Freedom Park on September 7. Panha Chhorpoan

Chin Malin, vice president of the Cambodian Committee for Human Rights and spokesman at the Justice Ministry said the UNOHCHR statement is a summary report that uses baseless evidence to cover up the fact that protesters were conducting illegal activities.

“The [UN] has just compiled events and made a conclusion that Cambodia has violated human rights,” he said, adding that the report provides no data or comprehensive analysis.

Malin said that the UN should analyze the activities of those who have been arrested to verify whether they had violated the law or merely exercised their freedoms.

“This is a summary report, so it does not have any influence in helping the accused people,” Malin said. “They should follow it by showing up during court procedures to reveal exculpatory evidence according to the law.”

Outspoken union leader Chhun’s arrest for comments he made on the placement of demarcation posts along the Cambodia-Vietnam border sparked protests outside the courthouse demanding his release, with the demonstrators later marching in the streets and submitting petitions at various embassies and the UNOHCHR asking that they intervene to secure his release.

As a result, five of Chhun’s supporters were detained and charged with incitement to disturb social security in the weeks after his arrest, facing six months to two yearsin jail. Three activists from environmental NGO Mother Nature were charged with the same crime on September 6 for attempting to organize a peaceful demonstration to raise awareness of repercussions stemming from the filling in of Boeng Tamok lake. A further four activists were charged on September 8 over a demonstration they had planned at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to seek justice for the others who had been detained.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, echoed the UNOHCHR’s call to release the activists who are now imprisoned over their peaceful protests. 

“Our civil society groups are concerned about the human rights situation, especially fundamental freedoms, and their right to freedom of assembly,” he said.

“We have seen that the situation of human rights is very tense,” he added.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also issued its own statement on September 11 calling for the jailed activists to be released.

“The Cambodian authorities’ latest wave of arrests of activists shows a highly disturbing disregard not only for freedom of expression and assembly, but for land rights and the environment,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia director at HRW. “The authorities should stop misusing penal code provisions on incitement to prevent peaceful critics from making public demands of the government.”

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