Cambodia: Harassment, arrest, and detention of human rights defenders continue

Phnom Penh, Paris, Geneva, January 22 – FIDH and the OMCT, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) express their concern over the Cambodian authorities’ ongoing harassment, arbitrary arrest, and detention of human rights defenders.

The Cambodian government must comply with its obligations under international law and ensure that human rights defenders can conduct peaceful activities without fear of being harassed and arbitrarily arrested ,” FIDH President Karim Lahidji said. “ This includes lifting a blanket ban on public demonstrations, which contravenes Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a state party ,” Mr. Lahidji added.

On the morning of January 21, 2014, security forces arrested and took into custody 11 human rights defenders for several hours at Phnom Penh Municipal Police Station. The 11 had attempted to submit petitions to foreign embassies, including those of the US and France, which called for the release of 23 demonstrators who authorities detained in a crackdown on striking garment workers on January 2-3. While it is unclear why the 11 were detained, it is widely believed that they were detained for violating a verbal ban on public gatherings by more than 10 people, which the Cambodian Ministry of Interior issued on January 4.

Those arrested on January 21 are as follows: Boeung Kak Lake community human rights defenders Mmes. Tep Vanny, Yorm Bopha, Song Sreyleap, Pan Chunreth, Erm Sreytouch, Bov Sorphea, and Ngoun Kimlang; Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA) President Mr. Rong Chhun; Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU) member Ms. Cheang Thida; Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF) member Ms. Long Kim Heang; and rights activist Ms. Choung Sopheap. All 11 were released later in the day after they were forced to sign statements pledging that they would not join, lead or incite ‘illegal’ activities or protests in the future.

Freedom of assembly may be displeasing for the authorities but it is not an illegal activity. It remains a right that nobody can be forced to give up while in police custody ,” OMCT Secretary General Gerald Staberock said. “ One cannot say it more often: far from being the cure to a problem history is replete with examples that quelling dissent only exacerbates tensions ,” Mr. Staberock added.

On January 6, Boeung Kak Lake community human rights defenders Tep Vanny, Yorm Bopha, Bo Chhorvy, Song Sreyleap and Pan Chunreth had previously been arrested and taken into custody by authorities in Phnom Penh for several hours for attempting to submit a similar petition to the French embassy calling for the release of the 23 demonstrators. In addition to the unlawful detentions, on January 19, pro-government security guards and thugs wearing black helmets and armed with batons used excessive force to disperse a small group of activists and NGO leaders. The group had gathered to conduct a peaceful prayer vigil near the Royal Palace in central Phnom Penh for the release of the 23 detained individuals and to show support for their demand to increase the minimum wage for workers. Police also detained overnight at the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Station one of the organizers of the prayer vigil, Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA) Vice-President Sokchhun Oeung. On both January 6 and 19, the human rights defenders were released after signing a similar letter agreeing to cease demonstrating.

The Observatory, ADHOC, LICADHO and CCHR call for the immediate lift of the verbal ban on public gatherings by more than 10 people, in which context the above-mentioned arrests occurred.

The current ban on assemblies is unlawful, seriously disproportionate, and excessively broad and violates Cambodia’s domestic and international obligations. The ban on assemblies and the subsequent arrests are politically motivated and serve only the purpose of protecting the current government from criticism ,” CCHR Program Director Sopheap Chak said.

The Observatory, ADHOC, LICADHO, and CCHR also urge the Cambodian government to immediately and unconditionally release on bail all 23 demonstrators detained in Correctional Center 3 (CC3) and in Kampong Cham prison, both located in Kampong Cham Province.

Our organizations further call on the authorities to stop using force to repress human rights defenders’ peaceful and legitimate activities. They also condemn the use of pro-government, unofficial security guards to arrest and detain activists and human rights defenders.

The security forces’ brutality against unarmed peaceful protesters has become the norm in Cambodia ,” LICADHO Director Naly Pilorge said. “ The international community should take note of this alarming trend and demand the government put an end to the repression of non-violent dissent ,” Ms. Pilorge urged.

The Observatory, ADHOC, LICADHO, and CCHR reiterate their call for a quick, thorough, and independent investigation into the use of lethal force to suppress a workers’ strike on January 3. “ The government’s delay in investigating the deadly January 3 crackdown has emboldened security forces to step up abuses against peaceful demonstrators. Holding those responsible for the January 3 crackdown accountable will send a clear message that heavy-handed actions are no longer tolerated ,” ADHOC President Thun Saray said.

On January 2-3, security forces arrested 23 people, including garment workers and human rights defenders, during a brutal crackdown on striking garment workers at two separate locations in Phnom Penh. Among those detained were: Vorn Pov, President of IDEA; Theng Savuen, Coordinator of the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC); and Chan Puthisak, a human rights defender from the Boeung Kak Lake community. At least four people were killed and more than 20 suffered bullet wounds in the January 3 crackdown.

On January 16, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi condemned the incommunicado detention for several days of the 23 individuals detained on 2 and 3 January, and urged that the authorities seek their immediate release on bail.

For more information, please contact:

  1. FIDH: Arthur Manet / Audrey Couprie: +33143552518

  2. OMCT: Delphine Reculeau: +41228094939

  3. LICADHO: Dr. Kek Chhiv Pung: +85512802506

  4. CCHR: Sopheap Chak: +85511943213

  5. ADHOC: Mr. Thun Saray: +855 16880509