On Wednesday, prominent trade unionist and labour activist Rong Chhun will again appear before the trial court in Cambodia in one of a series of high-profile trials being carried out in Cambodia in an ongoing crackdown on activists which escalated significantly over the past year.
Rong Chhun, the President of the independent Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, was arrested on 31st July 2020. He has been a vocal human rights defender and has long raised concerns about the plight of farmers’ and workers’ rights.
Chhun was charged with incitement under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code for allegedly spreading ‘fake news’ after he appeared on a Radio Free Asia broadcast saying Vietnamese soldiers had placed border posts 500 meters into Cambodian territory and expelled villagers from their land.
Ahead of Rong Chhun’s hearing tomorrow, global civil society alliance CIVICUS calls on Cambodian authorities to drop the political motivated charges that have been brought against him and other activists. The authorities must also cease all forms of judicial harassment against them and release all those detained immediately
Rong Chhun’s arrest last year sparked a chilling wave of arrests in an escalation of attempts by the authorities to intimidate activists and silence all forms of dissent, highlighting the rapid deterioration of human rights in Cambodia.
A wave of arrests
On 10 August, activists Chhou Pheng, Chum Puthy and Sar Kanika, were charged with ‘incitement’ under Article 495 of the Criminal Code. On 13 August, two activists, Hun Vannak and Chhouen Daravy, from youth group Khmer Thavrak were also arrested after calling for Rong Chhun’s release. Other members of the youth group have been targeted by the authorities for planned protests; On 6 and 7 September, Buddhist monk Koet Saray and Tha Lavy were arrested while activist Eng Malai was picked up by authorities after leaving the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, where she had raised security concerns. All three were charged with ‘incitement’.
The police also arrested Vice-President of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association (KSILA), Mean Prommony, on 6 September for planning a protest while another member of KLSIA, Muong Sopheak was detained on 11 September.
On 3 September, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phoung Keorasmey, activists with environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, were arbitrarily detained while planning a peaceful march to call attention to the filling in of a Phnom Penh lake. They were charged with ‘incitement’ on 6 September.
Rapper Kea Sokun was arrested in Siem Reap on 10 September and charged with incitement under Articles 494 and 495 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. Sokun is understood to have been targeted as the result of a song he released in April called ‘Dey Khmer’ (‘Khmer Land’) which is about the politically sensitive topic of the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.
CIVICUS is also concerned that the Ministry of Interior is attempting to smear civil society groups Khmer Thavrak and Mother Nature Cambodia as unauthorised organisations. The Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, passed in July 2015, has been widely criticised by grassroots groups, unions, NGOs and the United Nations as inconsistent with international human rights law. It criminalises all unregistered groups and makes registration dependent on an unclear and complex bureaucratic process.
Despite the risk of arrest and criminalisation, civil society activists have not backed down and continue to play a brave role in speaking up and exposing abuses by state and non-state actors.
The international community must stand by these activists and call on the Cambodian authorities to halt their systematic campaign of weaponizing the courts to silence critical voices.
Research undertaken by the CIVICUS Monitor shows that laws are routinely misused in Cambodia to restrict civic freedoms, undermine civil society, and criminalise individual’s exercise of their right to freedom of expression. Human rights defenders, civil society activists and journalists are often subject to judicial harassment and legal action.