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PM moves to crush dissent; activists flee in wake of arrests; new assault on freedom of speech

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - The following is an 18 October 2005 Human Rights Watch press release:

Cambodia: Prime Minister Moves to Crush Dissent
Activists Flee in Wake of Arrests, New Assault on Freedom of Speech

(New York, October 18, 2005) - The government of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen should release recently arrested critics of the government, withdraw all arrest warrants against activists, and end the climate of fear that he has created in recent days, Human Rights Watch said today.

In response to criticism over a new border pact with Vietnam, Hun Sen has launched a sharp and sudden crackdown on dissent. Authorities have arrested the president of an independent teachers association and the director of Cambodia's only independent national radio station, and they have ordered the arrests of other civil society leaders.

Many of Cambodia's leading human rights advocates, trade union activists, and opposition party members have now fled the country or gone into hiding.

"This is the most severe assault on dissent in Cambodia since the aftermath of Hun Sen's coup in 1997," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "International donors and embassies must make it clear to Hun Sen that they will not tolerate the reversal of the important strides made in basic human rights during the last decade."

The crackdown started with Hun Sen's visit on October 10-12 to Vietnam, where he signed a controversial border treaty. On October 10, dozens of armed police officers surrounded the Phnom Penh home of Mom Sonando, director of Beehive Radio FM 105. He was arrested the next morning on charges of defamation after having aired an interview with a Cambodian activist in France who is highly critical of the border treaty.

Upon return to Cambodia, Hun Sen announced that he would prosecute anyone who alleged that he, or the Cambodian government, had "sold land" to Vietnam. Such statements are an "act of treason," he said.

In a meeting with international investors on October 14, Hun Sen announced that legal action was being taken against four members of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, a nongovernmental organization that had issued a statement on October 11 criticizing the border agreement.

On October 15, police arrested Cambodia Watchdog Council member Rong Chhun, who is also president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, as he was attempting to cross the border to Thailand to seek asylum. No arrest warrant was produced, but he was charged with defamation and incitement under articles 60 and 63 of the Cambodian penal code, which carry prison terms of five years for incitement and one year for defamation and a fine up to $2,500. Charges have also been brought against other members of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, including Chea Mony, President of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia; Ea Channa, representative of the Student's Movement for Democracy; and Men Nath, president of the Civil Servants Association.

"Legal action should not be used as a tool of repression to silence the political opposition and government critics in Cambodia," said Adams. "Hun Sen needs to accept that in a democracy leaders will be criticized when they make controversial decisions."

In a speech broadcast on Cambodian television on October 17, Hun Sen threatened to abolish the monarchy and sack military chief Ke Kim Yan and other officials if they did not abide by his orders. He warned international organizations and foreign governments not to interfere. He called on the Thai government to extradite Cambodians suspected of fleeing to Bangkok over the weekend to seek asylum.

The Cambodian government is now pressuring the Thai government to return individuals who have fled to Thailand for sanctuary. Returning persons to a place where they face persecution would violate the strict international legal prohibition against non-refoulement.

"The Thai government should not even discuss the return of individuals who are facing persecution for the peaceful expression of their political beliefs," said Adams. "To do so would make Thailand complicit in this assault on free expression."

To read the appendix (Report on Speech of Prime Minister Hun Sen on October 17, 2005) see: http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2005/10/18/cambod11892.htm

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