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Congressional Hearing Scrutinizes Rights Abuses

PHOTO SLIDESHOW, by Taing Sarada.

A US congressional committee turned its attention to Cambodia on Thursday, with six members of the US House of Representatives and four advocates for human rights in Cambodia all stating strong concern for rights setbacks in Cambodia over the past several years.

The hearing room in Washington was standing room only, as Mu Sochua, a member of parliament from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, Kek Galabru, president of the human rights group Licadho, and Moeun Tola, head of the labor program for the Community Legal Education Center, appeared before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission.

More than 200 others attended, as the Cambodians testified to the repression of free expression, the stripping of opposition parliamentary immunity, a lack of independence in the judicial system, land-grabs and repressed labor rights.

“This is not about American interest,” said Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia and member of the commission. “This is about human interest, human rights and the ability of the Cambodian people to express themselves freely, to move freely, to organize freely, and certainly to engage in a free and fair election, and that’s what we’re concerned about.”

The hearing was undertaken after reports of a worrying trend in Cambodia, of an apparent government crackdown on dissent, especially of lawmakers and journalists supportive of the opposition parties. One editor has been jailed for alleged incitement and another has closed his newspaper for fear of similar charges, while SRP lawmakers Mu Sochua and Ho Vann have both been taken to court by ruling party officials.

“We want to give Hun Sen, the prime minister, every opportunity to correct the situation, to the change some of his policies,” Moran said. “Maybe he’s just getting bad advice and he can sack whatever minister is giving him that advice. We don’t want to suggest how he might want to deal with this, but things need to turn around, and I think that’s the point of this hearing. It is unacceptable what’s going on there.”

Mu Sochua told the hearing that suspension of parliament immunity for members of the opposition meant a threat to democracy, as they cannot fulfill their tasks if they are worried about being prosecuted.

Referring to human rights reports by the UN, EU and local rights groups, Mu Sochua described a rights situation in Cambodia that has deteriorated to an alarming level, worries the government has repeatedly dismissed.

“We believe that such a denial and the continued grave violations of the rights of our people deserve immediate action to restore the vision of the Paris Peace Accords,” Mu Sochua said. “We need to crack the facade of democracy in Cambodia.”

Her concerns were echoed by a Kek Galabru, who as the founder of Licadho is a well-respected rights advocate. She said she worried that some laws, like the draft NGO law and law on public protest, need immediate US intervention.

Kek Galabru said she wanted the US to persuade the government of Cambodia to eliminate penal punishment of government critics and to kill a law that would put increased restrictions on nongovernmental organizations. She also recommended arrests and criminal charges against suspects still at large but wanted in connection with the murders of journalists, union activists and others.

These measures, however, were only temporary solutions, she said. In the long run, the US should aid in establishing an independent national human rights body, in accordance with UN conventions.

“If we can get this kind of institution with your support, we can promote and protect human rights in Cambodia, and maybe the lives of many Cambodians will be better,” she said.

Moeun Tola told the hearing that garment workers suffer from short term contracts, depriving them of long-term benefits, such as annual leave, while the un-prosecuted murders of activists remain a threat to union activities.

The public hearing was held at the Rayburn Congressional Office Building, directly across the street from the US Capitol in central Washington. Rarely do members of the US Congress conduct public hearings on issues specifically related to Cambodia.

Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, also testified on the panel. She said members of the Cambodian armed forces, police, and bodyguard units were involved in human rights abuses, like land-grabbing, evicting the poor, killing former members of the royalist party Funcinpec, intimidating rights activists, and illegal logging.

“All of these problems are really a function of impunity in Cambodia,” Richardson told the hearing. “There are a few people ever prosecuted, perhaps with the exception of Sochua, for real crimes.

“And, certainly, since the people in the government are not held accountable, ending on-going abuses and a culture of impunity really has to be one of the main purposes of US policy in Cambodia,” she said. “Otherwise we are nowhere further down the track than we were in 1991, the signing of the Paris Peace Agreement.”

Cambodian Embassy officials at the hearing declined to comment on the hearings, saying they were not officially invited to take part, but the embassy has issued a statement calling the hearing “biased.”

Meanwhile, rights activists have called for several specific actions from the government: the release of jailed journalists and union members and reinstatement of parliamentary immunity for opposition party members, along with visa sanctions on corrupt governmental officials and their children.

Other members of the Human Rights Commission present were co-chairmen James McGovern, a Democrat from Virginia, and Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, as well as Ed Royce, a Republican from California, Anh Joseph Cao, a Republican from Louisiana, and Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

Each praised the Cambodians for coming forward and testifying.

“I want to make it clear that every single member of this committee will remain in contact with you, and we will follow closely with you what will happen to you when you go home,” McGovern said. “There should be no retribution for telling the truth.”

“Speaking for myself,” Wolf said, “if there is any harm or ill-will done to any of you, I personally will offer an amendment to cut aid across the board, zero doubt, military, non-military, everything, to Cambodia.”