Families of Jailed Cambodian Activists Call on Government to Drop Incitement Charges

Their call came after five UN human rights experts intervened in the matter.
2021.08.10
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Families of Jailed Cambodian Activists Call on Government to Drop Incitement Charges Rong Chhun supporters protest in front of the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, demanding that the union leader be released without conditions, Aug. 26, 2020.
Photo: RFA

The family members of seven young social and environmental activists arrested a year ago urged the Cambodian government on Tuesday to drop the incitement charges against them, echoing a letter by U.N. human rights experts calling on the government to hold their trial or unconditionally release the detainees.

The activists were detained in August and September 2020 for joining a peaceful protest at Freedom Park in the suburbs of the capital Phnom Penh, demanding the release of imprisoned human rights defenders, including a popular union leader.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged the seven with “inciting to commit a felony or inciting to commit serious social unrest.” They have been held in pretrial detention and face between six months and two years in prison and a fine if found guilty.

Their trial began on Dec. 30, 2020, and a second session was held in February. But then a hearing scheduled for March 2 was postponed to June and later further postponed due to the deteriorating COVID-19 situation in the country. The court also denied the seven activists' bail requests.

Chhoeun Daravy, Hun Vannak, Koet Saray, Tha Lavy, and Eng Malai were members of the Khmer Thavarak youth group, which advocates for the protection of human rights and social justice and raises awareness about environmental issues in Cambodia.

Muong Sopheak and Mean Prommony belonged to the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, a group that mobilizes students to engage in issues concerning social development, good governance, and the sustainable use of natural resources.

Relatives of the seven who spoke to RFA agreed with calls by Cambodian and international human rights groups, the U.N., the United States and other democratic countries ​​that have all recently urged the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to release about 85 jailed activists, including their family members.

Five U.N. rights experts, including Vitit Muntarbhorn, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, sent a letter dated June 10 to the Cambodian government expressing concerns about the detention of the activists.

“It is very concerning that these human rights defenders were arrested because of their organizing and participating in demonstrations of solidarity and protest against the arrest of their colleagues and other Cambodian human rights defenders, thus violating their inherent rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of expression,” the experts said in the letter.

They cited a provision in Cambodia’s Penal Code about the extension of pretrial detention during which the accused must be brought to trial. The provision states that if a charged person is not called to appear before the trial court within four months, the charged person will be automatically released.

‘They committed no offense’

Koet Vy, the younger sister of Koet Saray, said she supported a proposal by rights experts calling for the release of the youths.

“My brother has been detained for a long time, and he has not committed any crimes,” she said. “He should have been released. Now COVID-19 infections [are on the rise], and he is in a very difficult situation.”

Mean Samnop, the brother of Mean Prommony, said that the continued detention of his sibling and the others has caused his family mental anguish and has brought no benefit to the government or society.

“It has been 10 months now,” he told RFA. “I do not understand. They committed no offense, so why do they have to be imprisoned? I support the [U.N.'s demand] that they be released.”

Chin Malin, secretary of state of the Ministry of Justice and vice chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, told the Phnom Penh Post on Monday that the statements by the five international human rights experts were based on reports from pro-opposition groups and that there was no solid legal basis for the activists’ release.

Cambodian civil society officials said they also supported calls for the activists’ release.

Heng Kimhong, head of the research and advocacy program of the Cambodian Youth Network, urged the government to drop the charges against the seven youths for past actions and protests during which they demanded rights and freedoms guaranteed by the country’s constitution.

The activists’ activities did not cause as serious a social impact as the court has charged, he said.

“If the detentions continue, they will seriously affect Cambodia's reputation and affect the principle of justice, which says that justice must be ensured and provided quickly for the people of Cambodia,” Heng Kimhong said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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