Two United Nations human rights experts expressed concern Wednesday about what they said is an escalating trend of repression by Cambodia’s government of dissent as part of a bid to silence political opinion, prompting the country’s ruling party to dismiss their claims as “fake news.”
“We are concerned about the use of criminal law to target free speech, both offline and online,” Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, and David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said in a statement.
“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right is one of the essential foundations for a democratic and just society. Restrictions on freedom of expression must be limited and strictly defined and statements of support for political leaders do not fall within such permitted limitations.”
Smith and Kaye noted that in recent weeks some 140 members of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been questioned, summoned or detained for gathering or expressing support for party leaders Kem Sokha, who is under house arrest on charges of treason, and Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid what he says are a string of politically motivated convictions.
Any restrictions on freedom of expression or assembly must be narrowly defined, based in law, and necessary to support “legitimate grounds” such as protecting public order or national security, and “proportionate to meet the desired end,” they said.
Charges of ‘incitement to commit a felony’ that the authorities have levelled against some of the concerned individuals are not appropriate restrictions on expressions of support for political figures, the experts added.
Smith and Kaye also suggested that the summons issued to many of the concerned individuals violate the right to due process and a fair trial.
Summons sent to many former CNRP members suggested they had violated a November 2017 Supreme Court ruling to dissolve the party for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government, but did not specify how their actions constituted a violation of the ban.
The Supreme Court decision was part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
The experts called on Cambodia’s government to “reverse the current downward trend” in political rights and freedoms.
“It is time the Government leads a change of the political culture to one of dialogue with a focus on issues rather than people, as a way to move ahead and to create a solid basis for durable peace, sustainable development and the enjoyment of all human rights,” they said.
Smith concluded her seventh visit to the Southeast Asian nation on May 9 with a list of recommendations for Hun Sen’s government of ways to improve human rights and make the country’s political space more inclusive.
She also called at the time for the release of CNRP president Kem Sokha from de facto house arrest, though government spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed her recommendations as politically motivated and said the fate of Kem Sokha is a matter for Cambodia’s courts.
On Wednesday, Phay Siphan called the statement from the experts “fake news,” saying that “many opposition parties … work freely in the Kingdom” and have joined the government-established Supreme Council of Recommendations and Consultations, where they are permitted to express their views on governance.
“It is saddening that a statement was released which is contrary to the fact,” he said, adding that the CNRP is no longer considered an opposition party following its dissolution by the Supreme Court.
More activists targeted
The U.N. statement came as two more CNRP activists in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces were summoned for questioning on charges of violating the party’s ban.
Battambang prosecutor Heng Luy ordered CNRP activist Dim Saroeun to appear before the court on June 21 for “failing to comply” with the Supreme Court’s order.
The activist told RFA’s Khmer Service that he will attend the hearing, but dismissed the summons as “purely politically motivated and part of a bid to intimidate me.”
Banteay Meanchey prosecutor Sok Keo Bandith also summoned CNRP activist Tuot Veasna to appear before the court on charges of “incitement,” though he has denied having committed any crimes.
“I quit politics to stay home and help my wife with her business,” he told RFA, adding that he “was surprised to receive the summons.”
Ying Mengly, a coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, said the two activists were innocent of the charges against them and had been targeted because of their ties to the opposition.
“If the cases are pushed forward to trial, it will be another example of how human rights and political rights are declining,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.