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Cambodia failing to protect human rights defenders ahead of elections

78 international and Cambodian civil society groups join together to condemn the worsening crackdown on dissent in the lead up to commune and national elections in Cambodia, calling on the government to cease their unlawful attacks on human rights defenders and comply with their responsibility to adhere to legally binding international human rights standards.

Protesters are detained by district authorities as they demonstrate in support of land rights activist Tep Vanny during her verdict in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 23, 2017.
Protesters are detained by district authorities as they demonstrate in support of land rights activist Tep Vanny during her verdict in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, February 23, 2017.

REUTERS/Samrang Pring

We, the undersigned international and Cambodian civil society organizations, strongly condemn the brazen attacks carried out against Cambodian human rights defenders (HRDs) over recent weeks, in what appears to be a deliberate strategy by the Cambodian authorities to punish and deter any expression of dissent ahead of the upcoming commune and national elections, scheduled for June 2017 and July 2018 respectively.

We are alarmed by the escalating severity of the government's crackdown on fundamental freedoms, which has seen HRDs targeted with threats, judicial harassment and even violence. HRDs play an essential role in holding those in power to account. Attacks on those who peacefully and legitimately carry out such work are unlawful, unacceptable, and must cease.

HRDs Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Yi Soksan, Mr. Nay Vanda, Ms. Lim Mony and Mr. Ny Chakrya (also known as the 'Khmer Five') have as of today spent 311 days in arbitrary detention in Phnom Penh. In November 2016 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (“UNWGAD”) concluded that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their status as human rights defenders and that this, along with violations of their right to a fair trial, renders their imprisonment arbitrary. The UNWGAD called on the Cambodian government to immediately release the five, yet more than three months later, they remain behind bars with the investigation into the politically motivated charges still ongoing.

On 23 February 2017, four of the five detainees appeared before the Court of Appeal to challenge their continued detention. For the sixth time, their release on bail was denied. Furthermore, on 27 February 2017, all five were scheduled to appear before the Supreme Court in a public hearing to challenge a decision made last year to extend their pre-trial detention for a further six months. However, the necessary order summoning the detainees to the court was not sent to any of the three different prisons where the five are being held, with the result that the hearing has been postponed.

In a clear attempt to silence one of the Cambodian authorities’ most fearless and outspoken critics, Ms. Tep Vanny was sentenced to two years and six months' imprisonment.

Last week also saw long-time land rights activist and HRD Ms. Tep Vanny convicted of "intentional violence with aggravated circumstances" in a case dating back to 2013. The conviction came after over five months of pre-trial detention on a baseless charge that was suddenly reactivated following Ms. Tep Vanny's arrest in August 2016 while protesting for the release of the Khmer Five. In a clear attempt to silence one of the Cambodian authorities' most fearless and outspoken critics, Ms. Tep Vanny was sentenced to two years and six months' imprisonment, as well as a series of fines and compensation payments amounting to the equivalent of $2250 USD. A group of Ms. Tep Vanny's supporters, who had peacefully gathered outside the court building, were also violently dispersed by police and security forces, leaving some in need of hospital treatment. These events follow on the heels of a September 2016 conviction of Ms. Tep Vanny and three other activists, on charges also reactivated in August 2016, for 'obstruction of a public official with aggravating circumstances' and 'insult of a public official' in relation to a 2011 protest, despite a lack of any credible evidence. The six-month sentence has been upheld on appeal but is yet to be enforced.

These developments have occurred in an increasingly hostile environment for human rights in Cambodia. In the last month alone, two human rights monitors were summoned for questioning under suspicion of committing 'intentional violence' during a protest at which they were victims of beatings by security guards. A human rights NGO was also publicly threatened with legal action in relation to their publication of research highlighting child labor and debt bondage in brick factories. In a further backlash against legitimate advocacy, 48 NGOs were threatened with legal action for 'putting pressure on the court' – a criminal offense that appears uniquely reserved for those critical of government - following their criticism of the conviction of three environmental activists.


We are seriously concerned that such rhetoric may lead to an increasingly dangerous situation both for human rights defenders and for all individuals who wish to exercise their fundamental rights...

In addition, the characterisation of any form of protest as “colour revolutions” by leading government figures appears to be an attempt to delegitimize any form of peaceful protest and pre-emptively justify disproportionate and violent crackdowns on demonstrations. We are seriously concerned that such rhetoric may lead to an increasingly dangerous situation both for human rights defenders and for all individuals who wish to exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, and association throughout the election period.

These attacks on HRDs are in violation of Cambodia's legally binding obligations under international human rights law. Additionally, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders explicitly restates the internationally-guaranteed right of all individuals to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the duty of each state to take all necessary measures to protect individuals against any violence, threats, retaliation, discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of their legitimate exercise of this right.

The United Nations Human Rights Council is currently holding its 34th session in Geneva: the international community - in particular signatories to the Paris Peace Agreements who undertook to “promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” – must join us in publicly condemning these violations and urge the Cambodian authorities to comply with international law.

We call on the Cambodian authorities to cease their unlawful attacks on HRDs and immediately release all those detained as a result of the legitimate exercise of their fundamental freedoms.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights
Afghanistan Journalists Center
ARTICLE 19
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Bytes for All
Cambodian Centre for Independent Media
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Cartoonists Rights Network International
Center for Independent Journalism - Romania
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Center for Media Studies & Peace Building
Free Media Movement
Fundamedios - Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study
Globe International Center
Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda
Index on Censorship
Institute for Media and Society
International Press Centre
Journaliste en danger
Media Institute of Southern Africa
Media Watch
National Union of Somali Journalists
Norwegian PEN
Pacific Islands News Association
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
Vigilance pour la Démocratie et l’État Civique

Alliance for Conflict Transformation (ACT)
Asia Democracy Network (ADN)
Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)
Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL)
Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM), India
Boeung Kak Community
Boeung Trabek Community
Borei Keila Community
CamASEAN
Cambodia Indigenous Youth Association (CIYA)
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)
Cambodian League for the Promotion & Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO)
Center for Human Rights and Development (CHRD), Mongolia
Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC)
Community Legal Education Center (CLEC)
Equitable Cambodia (EC)
Former Boeung Kak Women Network Community
Front Line Defenders
Gender and Development for Cambodia (GADC)
Human Rights Defenders Alert, India
Human Rights Working Group (HRWG), Indonesia
Indigenous Youth at Prome Community, Preah Vihear Province
Indradevi Association (IDA)
INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Sri Lanka
INSEC (Informal Sector Service Centre), Nepal
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Kuoy Ethnic Community, Prame Village, Preah Vihear province
Land Community, I Village Preah Sihanouk province
Land Community, Prek Chik Village, Koh Kong
Land Conflict Community, Skun Village, Siem Reap province
Law and Society Trust (LST), Sri Lanka
Lor Peang Community, Kampong Chhnang Province
Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN)
Mongolia Democracy Network
Odhikar, Bangladesh
Peoples' Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR)
Philippines Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PARHA)
PILIPINA Legal Resources Center (PLRC)
Ponlok Khmer (PKH)
Programme Against Custodial Torture and Impunity (PACTI), India
Progressive Voice, Myanmar
Railway Station, Tuol Sangkae A Community
Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), Pakistan
SOS International Airport Community
South India Cell for Human Rights Education and Monitoring (SICHREM).
Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM),
Task Force Detainees of the Philippines
Think Centre, Singapore
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders

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