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Demonstrations subject to increasing interference, restrictions by Cambodian authorities

Riot police load an activist onto a truck during a protest against the detention of local human rights activists outside of an appeals court in Phnom Penh, 13 June 2016
Riot police load an activist onto a truck during a protest against the detention of local human rights activists outside of an appeals court in Phnom Penh, 13 June 2016

AP Photo/Heng Sinith

This statement was originally published on cchrcambodia.org on 1 September 2016.

Timeline: March - August 2016

Events at recent demonstrations and protests indicate that the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly in the Kingdom of Cambodia (“Cambodia”) are facing ever-greater interference and restriction at the hands of local and national authorities.

Introduction

Recent protest, demonstration, and opposition activities, have seen the Royal Government of Cambodia (the “RGC”) increasingly employ state repression in violation of the fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly. The objectives of this Fact Sheet are to describe this recent trend, list some characteristic examples, and emphasize the danger of limiting fundamental freedoms.

This Fact Sheet is written by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (“CCHR”), a non-aligned, independent, non-governmental organization (“NGO”) that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights – primarily civil and political rights – throughout Cambodia.

Black Monday Campaign

May 2016 saw the beginning of a new campaign of peaceful demonstrations – the “Black Monday” campaign. The first event was an attempted march to Prey Sar prison to express solidarity with the five human rights defenders detained on what are widely believed to be politically motivated charges in relation to the deputy opposition leader's alleged extra-marital relationship. Authorities reacted with a heavy-handed approach, employing tactics such as diversion of personnel and traffic away from the scene, intrusive photography of participants and observers, and an attempt to detain all foreigners in attendance. From the campaign's outset, it was treated as a de facto illegal activity, and the Ministry of the Interior announced that participation would be tantamount to “incitement” and contradictory to public order.

Since the beginning of the campaign, each peaceful “Black Monday” event has been marked by official interference. Nine weeks into the campaign, the confrontation escalated as violence erupted between the protesters and security guards. Four Borei Keila protesters were arrested attempting to join the 15th “Black Monday” protest on 15 August, and on the same day Boeung Kak activists Ms. Tep Vanny and Ms. Bov Sophea were arrested on charges of “incitement” in relation to a “Black Monday” affiliated ceremony. On 22 August, the two were convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after the trial judge changed the charges to “insult”; both were found guilty and sentenced to the maximum penalty of six days imprisonment in addition to a 80,000 Riel fine each. Bov Sophea was released the same day, having already served her time while in pre-trial detention. Tep Vanny was kept in pre-trial detention based on separate “intentional violence” charges which were re-activated on 19 August, despite the protest to which the charges relate occurring three years ago. A Spanish researcher, Ms. Marga Bujosa Segado, who was arrested alongside Vanny and Sophea for participation in “Black Monday”, was deported from Cambodia on 16 August.

To date, CCHR has documented 33 arrests made in relation to the Black Monday campaign. Several of the arrests were made under incorrect legal interpretation that such peaceful assemblies, many of which have been held in communities, had an obligation to seek prior permission.

CNRP Thumbprint Petition Campaign

In reaction to the RGC's reaction to Kem Sokha's alleged extra-marital relationship and associated detentions, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (“CNRP”) launched a drive to collect thumbprints and petition the King. Government reaction was swift. For example, on 19 May, two CNRP activists in Kompong Thom province were arrested on charges of “inciting the people” for collecting thumbprints. On 30 May, the CNRP submitted 170,000 thumbprints endorsing its petition. Again, the RGC obstructed the campaign and questioned its credibility, establishing Ministry of the Interior and National Police task forces to investigate the thumbprints on 8 June.

The tenacious, costly government campaign briefly stalled on 9 June, when the Ministry of Interior indicated that it could not continue its investigation without additional funding. Citing alleged irregularities involving as many as 738 thumbprints, the Ministry of the Interior received authorization for legal action on 16 August. Such legal action could entail indictment and imprisonment of opposition lawmakers involved in the petition.

Other Instances of Restriction and Interference

Official interference in the freedoms of assembly and expression have by no means been limited to the “Black Monday” campaign or harassment of the political opposition. CCHR has documented numerous instances where authorities at all levels of the RGC have resorted to tactics of intimidation, interference, obstruction, threats both implicit and explicit, and sometimes outright violence to suppress fundamental freedoms of expression and assembly in recent months. For example, in March, Mother Nature activists were interdicted by police en route to a protest outside Prime Minister Hun Sen's residence. On 18 April, provincial officials in Preah Vihear prohibited the holding of a peaceful memorial ceremony dedicated to lost lands. It is an alarming trend that attempts to petition officials through legal means are often ignored, and when citizens resort to demonstrations or other peaceful forms of assembly and expression, their actions are suppressed outright. Following arrest, release from detention both for 'Black Monday' protesters and other detainees has often been contingent on the endorsement of pledges not participate in future protests. Thus, the initial assault on the right to peaceful assembly is exacerbated by a preemptive suppression of the same right. This has become a typical strategy and has seen application in a variety of situations, including the coercion of pledges from indigenous populations to not access ancestral lands. In cases were charges are pursued, a dangerous legal precedent is set by allowing bail only when detainees pledge not to engage in legal activity arbitrarily redefined as criminal.

CCHR and other NGOs have also experienced operational restrictions on research, training, seminars, and other activities. For example, on a number of occasions in the past 12 months, CCHR has had its research in communities affected by land conflict interrupted by the authorities.

Conclusion

Cambodia is rapidly becoming an unpermissive environment not only for explicit protests, but nearly all NGO and civil society activities. As a result, the RGC is coming under increasing pressure to curtail its attacks on civil society as international institutions and organizations criticize its campaign to silence peaceful opposition. For example, on 9 June, the European Parliament passed a motion stating that the amount of financial assistance that the European Union provides to Cambodia should be dependent on improvements of the country's human rights situation. In the same month, the United States followed suit, demanding an end to “violence and harassment against civil society” as a condition for financial aid. The ruling party's reaction to the peaceful “Black Monday” and CNRP petition campaigns have been characterized by paranoia and alarming tenacity. Authorities' interference with freedoms of expression and assembly directly threaten activists, opposition parties, and NGOs. Moreover, such interference is a hindrance to the diversity of opinion and political discourse necessary to maintain a vibrant and engaged civil society, essential for a healthy democracy.

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