Updated at 12:30 p.m. EST on 2012-06-14
Cambodia has no culture of impunity and does not engage in land grabs, officials accompanying Foreign Minister Hor Namhong for talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
Speaking about the controversial death of environmental activist Chut Wutty, which sparked accusations of a government cover-up, Secretary of State Kao Kim Hourn dismissed as a “misconception” the notion that the country nurtures impunity.
Chut Wutty, who was gunned down while investigating illicit logging operations in May, was the highest-profile activist killed in the country since labor activist Chea Vichea was assassinated in 2004.
“It’s really an isolated case, and [one that] the government has been trying to investigate,” Kao Kim Hourn said Tuesday at a forum organized by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There is no such thing as a culture of impunity [in Cambodia],” he said.
“Anyone that carries out criminal activity [is] subjected to the due process of law in court,” he said.
His comments came shortly after Foreign Minister Hor Namhong met with Clinton, as Cambodian-American rights groups staged a protest outside the U.S. State Department building, where the talks were held.
In a petition to Clinton ahead of the talks, rights groups called for the release of 15 activists from the Boeung Kak Lake community in Phnom Penh.
Thirteen women were jailed for between one year and two and a half years for their part in protests over land they say the government gave away in a concession to a private developer, in one of the country’s highest-profile land disputes. Two others were detained after the 13 women at a protest over their arrest.
Kao Kim Hourn denied accusations that land disputes such as the Boeung Kak case are due to unfair government policies.
“The government of Cambodia does not have a policy of land-grabbing,” he said.
He said that it was not that the government who had taken the land illegally, but that the residents were occupying it illegally.
“Those so-called ‘forced evictions’ are of people occupying state land illegally,” he said, adding that such evictions occur in “any society with state land.”
“It’s a crime, in fact, to occupy state land,” he said.
Ouch Borith, also a secretary of state in Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that the land concession in Boeung Kak was made in an effort to improve conditions for the villagers.
“There were 3,900 families living there without infrastructure or sanitation facilities, so the government decided to transform this area,” he said
The government offered the residents options of compensation or relocation, and “the majority, more than 3,800, of the families agreed,” he said.
He said that the term “eviction” should not even apply to the situation, because the government “does not want to evict people without their consent.”
“Cambodia is an emerging country,” and so still faces many difficulties in providing for the people, he added.
Hor Namhong said that Cambodia has been polishing its human rights record.
“Cambodia has implemented a number of priority agendas related to democratization and promotion of human rights,” he said, speaking after his meeting with Clinton.
Cambodia allows over 3,700 local and international NGOs to “work freely throughout the country” including in human rights and pro-democracy activities.
Transparent elections have contributed to the country’s democratization “from the national to the grassroots level,” he said.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.