Updated at 12:30 p.m. EST on 2012-06-14
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has raised human rights issues in talks with her counterpart from Cambodia, prodding the Southeast Asian nation to free 13 women jailed for protesting a land grab and to allow full participation in elections next year.
In her talks with Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in Washington on Tuesday, Clinton said the United States was concerned about the Cambodian government's handling of the "whole issue" of land protests last month which led to the jailing of 13 women for between one year and two and a half years.
The protests were over a longstanding dispute between tens of thousands of residents of capital Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake district who were evicted from their homes, or are in risk of losing them, and developers looking to turn the area into a luxury residential and shopping center.
The women had been jailed for disputing authority and trespassing on the development site. Two others, a man and a woman, were detained on similar charges at a protest against their arrest.
"The Secretary did express our concern over the recent protests regarding land rights issues and urged Cambodia to allow Boeung Kak Lake detainees full access to due process. And she did note that their release would be a sign of support for freedom of expression," State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland told reporters.
Asked to elaborate on the area of concern, Nuland said it was "about the way the whole issue was handled and the fact that this ignited quite a bit of difficulty."
The Cambodian Ministry of Justice has called on the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to re-examine whether the decision to jail the 13 women was just, the Phnom Penh Post reported Wednesday, citing a letter.
“This case is in the jurisdiction of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, so the ministry has forwarded this [a petition from Boeung Kak villagers] to the court to re-examine and resolve this issue with transparency and justice,” it quoted the letter as saying.
Land disputes are a common problem in Cambodia, where an estimated 30,000 people a year are driven from farmland or urban areas to make way for real estate developments or mining and agricultural projects.
Cambodia’s land issues date from the 1975-79 Khmer Rouge regime, which banned private property and forced large-scale evacuations and relocations throughout the country.
Cambodian Secretary of State Kao Kim Hourn, who accompanied Hor Namhong to Washington, on Tuesday rejected accusations that land disputes such as the Boeung Kak case were due to unfair government policies.
“The government of Cambodia does not have a policy of land-grabbing,” he said. "Those so-called ‘forced evictions’ are of people occupying state land illegally,” he said, adding that such evictions occur in “any society with state land.”
“It’s a crime, in fact, to occupy state land,” he said.
Clinton also raised the case of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in Paris after being convicted on a series of charges, such as forgery, that his supporters contend are politically motivated.
"The secretary talked about the importance of a free, fair, transparent election in 2013 and with appropriate participation across the political spectrum," Nuland said.
Asked whether Clinton believes that Rainsy should be allowed to participate in the elections, Nuland said it was "an issue for the Cambodians."
"She simply raised concerns ... about this election and ensuring that it is, in fact, free, fair, transparent, with equal access to participate."
Rights groups have accused Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has dominated the Southeast Asian nation for nearly three decades, of suppressing dissent and intimidating political opponents.
But Clinton praised Cambodia for shelving a planned law that activists fear would constrain nongovernmental organizations.
"She ... commended the Foreign Minister and the Cambodian Government on the Prime Minister’s announcement that his government would not proceed with a planned NGO law until a consensus could be reached between the government and Cambodian civil society," Nuland said.