A consortium of more than 20 Cambodian human rights groups has condemned a court in the country’s capital for pursuing what they called “politically-motivated” charges against an outspoken human rights activist.
In a joint statement, the organizations such as Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) called the charges against Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) activist Chan Soveth the “decade’s most serious threat to human rights work in Cambodia.”
The municipal court in Phnom Penh recently summoned Chan Soveth to answer charges that he illegally aided a resident of Broma village in Kratie province’s Chhlong district involved in a mass occupation of land that triggered a security crackdown and bloody clashes in May.
The clashes occurred after some 1,000 village families refused a government order to vacate state land they had used for farming and which activists said had been awarded as a concession to Russian firm Casotim, which plans to set up a rubber plantation.
Authorities assert that villagers were planning to secede from Cambodia and create their own state and that Chan Soveth had assisted one of the “secessionist leaders” in violation of Article 544 of the Penal Code.
The rights groups contend there is no evidence that the recipient of assistance had committed such a crime and say that the authorities have only offered blanket allegations that the villagers had established a secessionist movement.
“With the absence of any credible underlying felony, Soveth’s assistance to a victim of land-grabbing—which falls firmly within ADHOC’s mandate—cannot and must not be criminalized,” the statement said.
“We … urge the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to maintain its independence in this case. We also call upon the executive branch to refrain from interfering with the judicial process.”
Chan Soveth himself has protested his innocence of any crime in assisting the villagers in their land dispute.
“I haven’t done anything like what they have accused me of. Honestly, I don’t know what to say about this accusation,” he told RFA’s Khmer service in an interview.
“As you already know, civil society groups are doing their normal work with this issue. If that results in such an allegation, then all those who work to protect human rights will be scared when they see the [authorities] doing this,” he said.
The activist said that if the court did its job independently and through due process, the charges against him would be dropped.
“Honestly, now I am very surprised and scared after seeing the warrant as [the court] never once asked me about the issue and simply accused me. I am so worried about this,” he said.
Attack on NGOs
Suon Bunsak, executive secretary of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), called the charges against Chan Soveth “nothing short of an attempt to criminalize legitimate NGO activities.”
“Soveth’s summons represents the boldest attack against human rights work that we’ve seen in a decade,” he said.
The group of rights watchdogs noted that the summons was issued to Chan Soveth less than two weeks after a nationally-televised speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen during which he called on an unnamed NGO worker to “confess” for his role in assisting the Kratie villagers.
During the speech, Hun Sen asked his staff whether the NGO worker had been called for questioning and was informed that he had not been. The criminal case against Chan Soveth was opened only 48 hours after the prime minister’s speech, the joint statement said.
Chan Soveth’s summons follows the arrest of Association of Democrats leader Mam Sonando who has been accused of sparking the land revolt and the ensuing clashes in which in an innocent teenage girl was fatally shot by security forces.
Mam Sonando faces 30 years imprisonment if convicted on all charges.
Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, called 2012 “the worst year for human rights in Cambodia in over a decade, by just about any measure.”
“We have seen increased violence, increased use of force by the authorities, an increase in killings, increased judicial intimidation, and now we see an attempt to criminalize legitimate human rights work,” Naly Pilorge said.
“This case threatens to destroy all remnants of Cambodia’s vibrant civil society—one of the last standing positive aspects of UNTAC’s legacy,” she said, referring to the U.N. Transitional Authority in Cambodia, which sought to restore the country’s government and legal system following the end of the Khmer Rouge era.
Chan Soveth must appear in court on Aug. 24 and, if convicted, faces one to three years imprisonment and a fine of U.S. $500 to U.S. $1,500.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service and by Joshua Lipes. Translated By Taing Sarada and Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.