Cambodia drew fresh criticism this week from both a major human rights organization and the leaders of several trade organizations over Prime Minister Hun Sen’s refusal to release opposition leader Kem Sohka from house arrest, and other rights abuses.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a statement on Thursday calling for Kem Sohka’s immediate release, saying the criminal case against the president of the now outlawed Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was politically motivated and violates statutes that limit detention of felony suspects to 18 months.
“For a year and a half, Cambodian authorities have imprisoned Kem Sokha, first in a remote jail and now in his own home; denied him visits from colleagues, diplomats, and journalists; and conducted a baseless investigation with no end in sight,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director. “The government should immediately end Sokha’s arbitrary detention and release him.”
The statement detailed the timeline from Kem Sokha’s arrest in Sept. 2017, the dissolution of the CNRP that November, the arduously long detention in which Kem Sokha’s health deteriorated.
The NGO pointed out that even though the CNRP president was released from pretrial detention a year after his arrest, the “highly restrictive conditions of judicial supervision” that Kem Sokha is subject to effectively mean he is under house arrest, which is illegal by Cambodian law.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen has used every unlawful trick in the book to solidify his one-party authoritarian rule and remove the one viable opposition party,” Adams said. “Cambodia’s donors and trade partners should insist on Kem Sokha’s unconditional release as a first step to stop Cambodia’s precipitous human rights slide.”
Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice secretary of state Chin Malin told RFA’s Khmer Service in an interview that HRW’s statement was inaccurate and disregards Cambodian laws.
“Kem Sokha is not being detained, so to say his detention beyond 18 months is illegal is incorrect,” said Chin Malin.
“The statement by Human Rights Watch is political, he said. “It’s an attack against the government.”
In response to Kem Sokha’s arrest as well as a wider crackdown on media and civil society, the EU announced in February that it was launching a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
Hun Sen then unveiled his strategy to offset the loss of the preferential trade agreement, saying he is “done taking orders” from other countries. The measures proposed by the Prime Minister included reducing “unofficial payments” in his government, decreasing transportation fees, and cutting the number of national holidays from 30 to 23 days.
Following the announcement of this plan, an analyst told RFA that Cambodia’s government doesn’t care about losing the EBA because its loss would only affect average Cambodians, not officials.
Buyers aren’t buying it
Concerned with how an EU withdrawal from the agreement—and the possible U.S. withdrawal from a similar agreement—would affect business, the leaders of several international garment, footwear and travel goods buyers issued a joint letter to Hun Sen calling for concrete steps to be taken so that the country’s preferential trade statuses could be preserved.
It describes the EU’s review, and the legislation-pending U.S. Congress review as “worrying developments for companies that value sourcing from Cambodia.”
The statement lauded the success of Cambodia’s garment industry, noting how sales to the U.S. and E.U. represented more than one-third of the country’s GDP, and how 80 percent of the country’s exports were from the garment industry.
They said they shared an interest in further growth in the country’s manufacturing sector, but not at the expense of ethics.
“Because of this shared interest, we remain deeply concerned with the lack of progress that has been made in addressing these important issues. Criminal charges and convictions remain in place against many labor leaders, the Trade Union law of 2016 continues to restrict the establishment of unions and union activity and the diminished role and reduced independence of the Arbitration Council continues to undercut what was a very effective dispute resolution mechanism,” the statement said.
The buyers urged the prime minister to address their concerns with a detailed plan of action, while offering their assistance in resolving the issues.
RFA attempted to reach government spokesman Phay Siphan for comment on the buyer’s letter but he was not available.
The Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun said that so far, at least six union leaders were convicted of crimes related to their activism.
“There is a [lack of] freedom for unions. [The situation] is not improving,” he said, citing concerns about union laws which restrict union activities including the establishment of unions.
The president hoped Hun Sen would take all necessary steps to maintain the EBA and avoid an economic crisis.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.