Call For International Pressure to Free 18 Jailed Cambodian Activists

Supporters of 18 jailed Cambodian opposition party members, monk activists and land rights campaigners called on foreign embassies in the capital Phnom Penh Tuesday to pressure the government for their release ahead of Human Rights Day.


Supporters of 18 jailed Cambodian opposition party members, monk activists and land rights campaigners called on foreign embassies in the capital Phnom Penh Tuesday to pressure the government for their release ahead of Human Rights Day.

Around 20 family members of the 18, who are detained at Prey Sar Prison, marched to the embassies of the U.S., Japan, South Korea and several EU nations to petition for intervention in their cases, which rights groups say signal a concerted effort by the authorities to curb dissent and intimidate those speaking up on protection of human rights.

Eight women among those jailed have threatened to go on a hunger strike until they are released.

Protesters shouted during the march that “children have become orphans because the activists have been denied justice,” as well as other slogans criticizing the authorities for the jailings.

Security forces looked on without interfering as representatives from the embassies accepted the group’s petitions.

Local rights group LICADHO said the charges leveled on the 18 were “spurious,” calling for their immediate release.

Seven women land activists were sentenced on Nov. 11 to a year in prison for obstructing traffic during a protest while three others and a monk were sentenced a day later for “aggravating a rebellion” while demonstrating for their release.

An additional two monks were thrown in prison the next day and face charges of “participation in criminal association” for a planned protest over a land dispute.

The remaining five were officials from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) detained in recent weeks for “inciting violence” during a July 15 protest by party supporters at Freedom Park in the capital.

Ou Kong Chea, the husband of veteran campaigner Tep Vanny—who was among the seven activists jailed—told RFA’s Khmer Service that the women had done nothing illegal when they placed a bed in the middle of a busy Phnom Penh thoroughfare to protest flooding in their Boeung Kak community.

“They said that they hadn’t done anything wrong—they were only trying to have the water removed,” he said, referring to protesters’ claims that flooding in the area had been caused by a development project backed by a lawmaker from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Ou Kong Chea said that eight of the jailed women planned to launch a hunger strike on Wednesday, which they pledged to continue until they are released.

Joint statement

The march came as LICADHO and two coalitions of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) monitoring womens’ rights released statements Tuesday condemning the arrest, detention and conviction of the 18 activists.

The 72-member NGO Cambodia Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (NGO CEDAW) and the 35-member Cambodian Committee of Women (CAMBOW) called on the government to honor its international commitments ahead of Human Rights Day.

“We urge for the immediate and unconditional release of the 18 persons still detained at [Prey Sar] prison,” the two coalitions said in a statement.

“We especially insist the government should implement the Cambodian Constitution and the international Human Rights treaties it ratified,” the statement said, referring to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Cambodia signed in 1992.

The two coalitions urged the government to abide by its commitment to ensuring its citizens the right to a fair hearing by an independent tribunal, as part of its obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Rights Day Marches

Also on Tuesday, hundreds of demonstrators neared the capital as part of marches that originated in several different Cambodian provinces last week to protest the jailing of the 18 activists and forced evictions arising from land disputes around the country.

Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group LICADHO, told RFA groups of between 100 and 200 protesters each were marching along National Routes 1 through 7 towards Phnom Penh and were expected to reach the capital by Tuesday night.

He said that the protesters planned to deliver petitions to the National Assembly, or parliament, on Wednesday to mark Human Rights Day.

A marcher from central Cambodia’s Kampong Chhnang province named Thorn Dy told RFA she took part in the protest to demand greater protections for human rights in the country.

“These days, the government doesn’t respect human rights and that is why I have become the victim of a land dispute,” she said.

As the marches convened on Phnom Penh, authorities were deployed along each of the national routes to halt their advance and force protesters to sign a pledge that they would not disrupt traffic before allowing them to continue.

Monk Thorng Narin, who took part in one of the marches, said the protests had not caused any traffic congestion, but that authorities had forced members of his group to take cars into the city instead.

Hydrodam protesters

Meanwhile, around 300 villagers marked Human Rights Day on Tuesday by marching along the Sesan River in northeastern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province to raise awareness of the “negative impacts of hydropower dams,” and three proposed Chinese-backed projects on the Mekong River tributary in particular.

The villagers—most of whom are members of indigenous tribes from Stung Treng and neighboring Ratanakiri province—claim that the three proposed dams will destroy their homes and farmland and shouted slogans during the march, including “indigenous people deserve human rights too.”

A villager who spoke to RFA on condition of anonymity said that he was not opposed to the dams, but demanded that those affected were fairly compensated.

He also expressed concerns over the potential impact of the projects, saying he was “worried about the construction of the dams,” and urging the government to fully consider their effects on the environment.

In June, Minister of Mines and Energy Suy Sem allayed concerns in parliament over inadequate compensation offered to villagers who face relocation for the 400 megawatt Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam, saying the government has allocated them more than four times the area taken over for the project.

Villagers campaigning against the dam have expressed concern about compensation for being displaced by the project, which they say would also destroy protected forest areas, kill rare fish, and negatively impact local ethnic minority culture.

They have also called on Chinese authorities to scrap two additional proposed 300 megawatt dams in Ratanakiri—the Lower Sesan 3 dam and the Srepok 3 dam.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.