WASHINGTON and PHNOM PENH - With prominent rights worker Chan Soveth summoned to court to face charges related to an ongoing secessionist crackdown, international and local rights advocates say they now fear a major backslide in the country’s civil rights.
Chan Soveth, lead investigator for the rights group Adhoc, has been summoned to appear before Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Aug. 24 and is accused of “providing assistance to the perpetrator” of a crime, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison under Cambodia’s criminal code.
Rights officials say the charges are related to the flight of a man named Bun Rotha, who is wanted in connection with a violent land protest in Kratie province in May, when authorities swept into the province’s Chlong district, Kampong Damei commune, forcing nearly 1,000 families to evict and shooting and killing a 14-year-old girl in the process.
Police later said the protest was linked to a secessionist movement in the province, a claim that has not been widely supported, and began making arrests of alleged ringleaders. Among four so far arrested was Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando, who is accused of leading the movement through his Association of Democrats, a civic organization. He remains in jail awaiting trial, while his radio station, one of the last independent broadcast media outlets in the country, has struggled to continue its programming.
Chan Soveth told VOA Khmer Friday he was not only surprised by the summons, “but I am afraid.” “This is experience and testimony that civil society organizations are in fear,” he said.
Rights groups say the summons is a continuation of a campaign of intimidation against civil society in the wake of the Kratie crackdown.
“This move by the judicial authorities can be seen as nothing other than an attempt to intimidate human rights defenders and prevent them from carrying out their legitimate activities,” Adhoc said in a statement.
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the crackdown shows that Prime Minister Hun Sen has become fearful of the destabilizing nature of ongoing land disputes in Cambodia.
But the Kratie crackdown has caused wider concern among international organizations of a major weakening of civil rights and their underpinning institutions.
Shiwei Ye, a Bangkok-based representative of the International Federation of Human Rights, said the “harassment” of civic advocates is counter to both Cambodian law and international norms. “When Cambodian civil society has less freedom to stand up for human rights, this will lead to an increase in abuses of power,” he said.
The government, led for the past 30 years by Hun Sen and the ruling party, has passed a number of laws that are subject to abuses and have eroded the country’s system of checks and balances, he said.
“So we are seeing a situation where the rule of law is getting weaker and weaker,” he said. The result is a concentration of power in Cambodia that is similar to other authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, he said.
Burma, for example, has the Unlawful Association Act, which is a vague law granting power to the government to eliminate organizations it does not favor, he said, and Malaysia has special security laws used to detain activists and stifle dissent.
“Because its appears that their primary objective is to keep political power, they are resorting to a number of means to quash opposition forces, and to quash basically any peaceful criticism of their high degree of control,” he said. The Arab Spring, which saw a number of uprisings in the Middle East and sparked a civil war in Syria, has fanned the fears of these regimes, he said. “They are afraid they will lose control and that they will no longer be able to maintain the high degree of such restrictions,” he said.
Cambodia’s arrests in the Kratie crackdown, and now the summons of Chan Soveth, are “very concerning,” he said, especially because there is no evidence pointing to an actual secessionist movement.
The recent spate of court action is also increasing concern that the Cambodian judiciary is not improving and remains politically biased and a tool of the ruling party, rights advocates say.
“Cambodia certainly can be lumped into one of the countries in Asean where the courts are not even remotely independent from the political power’s that be,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “It’s clear that the courts [in these countries] are used as a political weapon by the governments and the ruling parties, and controlled to go after opponents.”
In Cambodia, this has led to an increase in land instability, as powerful companies or individuals use the courts to maintain unlawful land seizures, he said. “It’s clear that that this impacts people’s quality of life and their livelihoods,” he said. The ongoing repression of rights workers and democracy advocates are “a clear downward spiral” of basic freedoms, he said.
Yong Kim Eng, director of the People’s Center for Development and Peace, said freedoms in Cambodia are often attacked when the government has flawed information or is acting on the behalf of ruling party cronies. But any criticisms, whether of an individual or government body, “mostly need a chance,” he said. “For example, on the issue of human rights violations, people need justice from being abused.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told VOA Khmer that Cambodia has more civic organizations that any other country in the region, but the “heaven of civil society” doesn’t mean groups or individuals can break the law. “So civil society organizations must prepare themselves clearly on what their roles are,” he said. “What do they fulfill? What services do they provide? That’s the issue, is that we see it’s not effective.”
Chan Soveth is one of the highest-profile rights advocates to face the Cambodian courts. He is a senior investigator for Adhoc, one of the most widely respected rights organizations in the country. He has no direct connection to the villagers in Kratie province, or Mam Sonando’s Association of Democrats.
It is true the government allows the presence of rights groups and associations, he told VOA Khmer, “but if we look a bit deeper, I think the implementation of freedoms in Cambodia is much lacking.”