A leading international human rights group on Wednesday called on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to release all political prisoners and drop all charges against them, arguing that recent releases and pardons were merely “attempts to regain international legitimacy after sham elections.”
The New York-based Human Rights Watch issued the appeal as it launched “Political Prisoners Cambodia,” a new webpage that profiles 30 prisoners jailed in the country Hun Sen has ruled for 33 years. He added five years to his tenure in July elections in which his party won every seat after he banned the opposition.
“The Cambodian government should immediately and unconditionally release all those detained for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement launching the political prisoner webpage.
It noted that 21 of the 30 profiled on the page were released, but dismissed that move as a gesture by Hun Sen to relieve international pressure after the election, which was not considered free or fair by the international community.
“The threat of being sent back to prison on other charges shows that the recent releases are just a piece of political theater and does not represent any change in Hun Sen’s approach to critics,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Hun Sen has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.
Last month, King Norodom Sihamoni granted a royal pardon at Hun Sen’s behest to 14 jailed CNRP activists who were serving long sentences for “insurrection” in connection with anti-government street protests in 2014 that turned into violent clashes with police and security forces.
Their release followed the freeing by royal decree of Tep Vanny—a prominent land activist—and three other campaigners convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab, as well as the granting of bail to two former RFA reporters who are facing charges of “espionage.”
Stop arresting critics
Adams called on Cambodia to “immediately release all political prisoners and drop all charges, including against opposition leader Kem Sokha. Hun Sen should commit to ending the arrest of critics, which he continues to use to prop up his dictatorial rule.”
Kem Sokha, the former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was released on bail from pre-trial detention on Monday, a year after he was arrested on treason charges widely seen as politically motivated. His arrest was followed in November by the banning of his party.
The 65-year-old opposition chief’s release carried the conditions that he must stay within a block radius of his home, cannot meet with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot or host any rallies or political activities, his lawyer said.
Kem Sokha, who had been denied bail six times despite fears that he was suffering from medical complications, still faces up to 30 years if convicted of treason.
“The U.S. government has taken note of Mr. Sokha’s transfer to house arrest, which falls far short of a full release, as well as the recent freeing of other political prisoners,” a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said in an emailed comment that called his arrest “among the most significant democratic setbacks in Cambodia over the past year.”
“We continue to call on the government of Cambodia to drop all charges against Mr. Sokha, remove restrictions on the political rights of him and other opposition leaders, and engage opposition leaders in an urgent dialogue aimed at building genuine national reconciliation,” said the U.S. spokesperson.
Several recently released CNRP activists interviewed by RFA’s Khmer Service said they were innocent of the charges for which they were locked up.
Donors urged to press Hun Sen
Meach Sovannara, a Senior CNRP member who was recently released from prison and arrived in the U.S to meet his family, told RFA in an interview that he didn’t breach any laws and charges were made up against him to imprison him.
“Justice can’t be easily found in Cambodia,” he said, adding that he was a scapegoat in Hun Sen’s yearlong political crackdown.
Sovannara was among 11 CNRP members who had been incarcerated since 2014 and received lengthy sentences for their alleged role in a July 15, 2014 demonstration held by the party against government manipulation of the general election a year earlier.
Another activist, An Bathom, maintained his innocence of charges related to a political demonstration at Freedom Park in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh in 2015.
“They accused of me provoking violence, but I didn’t assault anyone,” he said, adding that he was taking photos of the demonstration when authorities accused him of violent acts.
“Cambodian authorities routinely misuse the courts, which lack judicial independence, to target members of the political opposition, civil society activists, and journalists,” the Human Rights Watch report said.
There was no immediate response from Hun Sen’s government to the appeal, but the 66-year-old prime minister, attending an economic gathering in Vietnam, on Wednesday dismissed outsiders’ criticism of Southeast Asian political issues.
"The countries that do not know our countries, please leave us to solve our problems for ourselves," the Associated Press quoted Hun Sen as telling the World Economic Forum gathering in Hanoi, in a broad defense of fellow leaders of Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos. All face foreign criticism for abuses of human rights in their countries
But Adams of Human Rights Watch said: “Cambodia’s trading partners and donors should tell the government that it must stop harassing and prosecuting critics and immediately release those unjustly held.”
“They need to make it clear to Hun Sen that it will not be business as usual so long as the government is holding political prisoners,” he said in a statement.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer and English Services. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.