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Human rights in freefall

Police clad in riot gear bar residents of the Boeung Kak lake area from
protesting outside the Chinese Embassy earlier this month. Human Rights
Watch claims a spate of land seizures and forced evictions were part of
a general erosion of basic freedoms last year. Photo by: Heng Chivoan
The Cambodian government has severely restricted fundamental freedoms
over the past year, making it “increasingly difficult” for rights
defenders, land rights protestors and unionists to operate freely in
the country, according to Human Rights Watch.

In its latest
global rights report, released in New York on Monday, HRW also called
on the Kingdom’s foreign donors to “forcefully challenge” increased
restrictions on rights in Cambodia.

The 649-page report
catalogues a series of developments last year that it claimed led to a
strengthening of the Cambodian government’s “chokehold” on human
rights. High on the organisation’s list of concerns was the increased
disregard shown by officials for United Nations representatives and
other foreign diplomats.

“The Cambodian government has used
bluster and intimidation to push the UN and donors into silence about
abuses,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said in a
statement accompanying the report’s release.

“The international community needs to advocate more forcefully for the human rights of the Cambodian people.”

In
March, Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to expel UN resident
coordinator Douglas Broderick after he criticised the swift passage of
the government’s anti-graft legislation. In October, during the visit
to Cambodia of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Hun Sen ordered the
closure of the UN’s human rights office in Phnom Penh. The order
followed an earlier warning that the head of the office, Christophe
Peschoux, could face expulsion for his criticisms of the deportation of
two Thai Red Shirt activists in July.

The HRW report also claims
that the introduction of a new “draconian” Penal Code, in addition to
the drafting of new laws regulating trade unions and the country’s
large NGO sector, represent threats to the rights of freedom of
association and assembly.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling
Cambodian People’s Party used the judiciary, new laws, and threats of
arrest or legal action to restrict free speech, jail government
critics, disperse workers and farmers peacefully protesting, and
silence opposition party members,” it said.

As an example, the
report cited the prosecution of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who was
sentenced in absentia to a total of 12 years in prison on “trumped-up”
charges relating to his campaign to exposed alleged Vietnamese border
encroachments.

It also documented the case of Seng Kunnaka, a
UN World Food Programme staffer who was convicted and jailed last month
on incitement charges after printing out a web article critical of the
government.

In addition, the the Kingdom’s spate of land
grabbing and forced evictions continued apace in 2010. During the first
half of the year, more than 3,500 families – totaling around 17,000
people – were affected by land-grabbing in 13 provinces, the report
states, citing figures from local rights group Licadho. Up to 60 people
were also imprisoned or awaiting trial for protesting against evictions
and land seizures.

The report added that about 2,000 people
were “arbitrarily detained” in 11 government drug detention centers. Up
to 60 cases of torture were reported in the first half of 2010 alone.

“Cambodia’s
donors need to wake up and recognise that the human rights situation in
Cambodia is rapidly deteriorating,” Robertson said.

“They
should demand that the government abide by its human rights
obligations, and they should be front-line defenders of civil society
against government intimidation.”

Om Yentieng, head of the
government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said he was too busy
to comment yesterday. But Tith Sothea, a spokesman for the Press and
Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers, defended the
government’s progress on Tuesday, saying HRW’s report “lacks accuracy”.

“It is the report that is poisoning the environment. It is the
report that does not express the truth about the process of democracy
and law implementation,” he said, adding that the government had taken
actions to strengthen the rule of law.

“So the report has no value: we consider it like rubbish.”

Members of the opposition said the report reflected the reality in Cambodia.

Sam
Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the party was “extremely
concerned” by the erosion of freedom of expression, pointing to the
legal prosecution of its parliamentarians in the country’s
CPP-dominated court system.

“The international community should
play a role, should do something, to put pressure on the government to
respect freedom of expression. No one can curb corruption without
freedom of expression,” he said.

He said the government’s
increasingly bellicose attitude towards the UN and outspoken foreign
officials was also a bad sign, which could eventually alienate Western
governments.

“We cannot live alone, due to globalisation,” he said. “If we want to isolate ourselves, I think we will commit suicide.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SAM RITH

Phnom Penh Post
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Categories: Local News, Politic
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