Thailand is set to deport the president of a construction workers union who helped produce a documentary about sex trafficking back to Cambodia, where his wife said Tuesday he will face political persecution amid a wider crackdown on labor activists by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Rath Rott Mony, the 47-year-old head of the Cambodian Construction Workers Trade Union Federation (CCTUF), was detained in Bangkok on Dec. 7 while attempting to seek asylum at a visa office for the Netherlands by Thai police acting on a formal request by Cambodia’s government.
Cambodian authorities said he abetted the production of fake news after he helped Russia Today (RT) film a documentary released in October called “My Mother Sold Me,” which tells the stories of impoverished families in Cambodia who hawked the virginity of their daughters, who were later forced into prostitution.
One of the mothers portrayed in the film, Kav Malay, later recanted her story and said she had been paid to say she sold the virginity of her daughter Khieng Sreymich in the documentary.
On Tuesday, Rath Rott Mony’s wife Long Kimheang told RFA’s Khmer Service that she had been informed by a United Nations Human Rights officer in Thailand that her husband is being held at an immigration detention center in the country, and that Cambodian authorities will come to take him home in “about one week.”
She said her husband has been denied access to a lawyer while in detention and believes he is being targeted for his activism representing Cambodian construction workers, adding that he is likely to be jailed without a fair investigation of his alleged crime once he is returned home.
Both Long Kimheang and RT have said the documentary shows the truth about sex trafficking in Cambodia, despite Kav Malay changing her story.
Serey Pich, a woman featured in the documentary, told RFA that neither she nor anyone else in the film received money from Rath Rott Mony or RT to tell their stories, and questioned why Kav Malay and her daughter said they had.
“This is the true story of my life—I kept it inside me for too long and I appreciate the opportunity to get it off my chest,” she said.
“Rath Rott Mony is innocent. I am shocked to hear about his arrest in Thailand and I don’t understand why Khieng Sreymich testified against him.”
RT told the Khmer Times on Monday that it was concerned by Rath Rott Mony’s detention and was working to resolve the situation, including via diplomatic channels.
The same day, Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Interior Ministry, said the union leader would be deported as soon as possible, noting that he had “committed a crime” and defamed his country.
“Action should be taken against him,” he said, adding that Rath Rott Mony “will not be free.”
On Tuesday, Brad Adams, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia director, urged Thailand to immediately release Rath Rott Mony and allow him to seek protection from the United Nations refugee agency.
“Thailand should not do Cambodia’s bidding by forcibly returning an outspoken activist who exposed police failures to stop abuses and child sex trafficking,” Adams said in a statement.
Human Rights Watch noted that Thai authorities have regularly collaborated with Cambodia’s government to arrest and forcibly return exiled dissidents who fled to Thailand to escape persecution under Hun Sen.
“It is critically important for Thai authorities not to put Mony into harm’s way in violation of international law,” the group said.
Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday sentenced six prominent union leaders to 30-month suspended prison terms for “acts of violence” and “property damage” during a January 2014 strike by garment workers in the capital over wages that was broken up when police shot and killed four people, and ordered them to pay a combined fine of 35 million riels (U.S. $8,650) to their victims.
None of the union leaders was present in the courtroom during the ruling, which they later said they refused to accept, and at least two of them told RFA they plan to appeal the verdict.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) and one of the labor leaders sentenced on Tuesday, called the ruling unjust.
“I cannot believe how workers union leaders like us, who volunteer to represent workers in their fight for benefits and on behalf of their interests, can receive such treatment from the court,” he said.
Cambodian Labor Confederation (CLC) president Ath Thun, who was among those sentenced Tuesday, also dismissed the verdict.
“I’m very disappointed—this unjust criminal record will make it very difficult for me to continue to represent workers in the future, due to restrictions under the new union law,” he said, adding that he plans to appeal.
Am Sam Ath, investigations manager for the Cambodia-based rights group Licadho, told RFA that the union leaders were denied justice in their case.
At the end of November, Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor asked all union leaders and labor activists who have court cases pending against them to report to the ministry so it can work with justice officials to have the charges dropped, in what critics have said was a move by Hun Sen to ease pressure by the international community over his human rights record.
Political party law
Also on Tuesday, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the country’s one-party National Assembly, or parliament, will push an amended version of a draft law on political parties to the full assembly for a vote on Dec. 13, which—if accepted—would allow 118 senior officials from the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to reenter politics following a ban last year.
The prime minister and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) overwhelmingly won a July 29 election widely criticized as unfree and unfair following the Supreme Court’s November 2017 dissolution of the CNRP and a five-year ban on the political activities of the party’s 118 opposition officials for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested on charges of treason two months ahead of the dissolution and, while he has been granted bail, remains under house arrest, is barred from meeting with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot speak at or host any rallies or political activities.
In response to Tuesday’s statement, acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of politically motivated convictions, posted a message on his Facebook account saying that the 118 CNRP officials “are not interested in recovering our political rights as long as Kem Sokha … does not enjoy full freedom and as long as the charges against him have not been dropped.”
CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, who is a member of the Assembly’s Permanent Committee, told RFA Tuesday that if the ban on Kem Sokha’s political activities is lifted, “he will be able to enjoy freedom like the other 118 officials.”
“However, if he is charged with ‘conspiring with foreign power’ [to topple the government], that is a criminal act that must undergo judicial proceedings and will need to be dealt with as a separate case,” he said.
Analyst Meas Ny told RFA that he welcomed what could be a solution to Cambodia’s political crisis, but said he was troubled by frequent amendments to the same article of the country’s constitution.
“It remains to be seen whether this amendment is a genuine improvement or will simply be used as political tool for [the CPP’s] old game of beating their political opponents again,” he said.
“This game has become very familiar.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.