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Case Against Rights Worker Viewed as Intimidation

Thousands of garment workers joined rights advocates and others on a march in Phnom Penh, marking the 64th International Human Rights Day.

Thousands of garment workers joined rights advocates and others on a march in Phnom Penh, marking the 64th International Human Rights Day.

WASHINGTON DC - With prominent rights activist Chan Soveth released under court control and facing charges of abetting the escape of alleged secessionists earlier this year, rights workers say they fear his case will be held over his head to prevent him from rights advocacy.

Chan Soveth, who is an investigator for the rights group Adhoc, was questioned and released by the court on Monday, in what some rights workers say is a campaign of intimidation for other advocates.

Chan Soveth has been charged with helping several men escape a government crackdown in Kratie province in May. Local and international groups have said the crackdown on an alleged secessionist plot was conducted on thin evidence.

The crackdown also put a prominent independent radio broadcaster, Mam Sonando, in jail, serving a 20-year sentence. His supporters say he is being punished by the court for criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Am Sam Ath, chief investigator for the rights group Licadho, welcomed Chan Soveth’s release, but he said the charges against him should be dropped altogether.

“If the court does not drop the charges, it is a kind of pressure on him in fulfilling his profession as a human rights defender,” Am Sam Ath said.

Suon Bunsak, chief secretary for the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said the charges against him will make Chan Soveth’s work difficult.

His case will hang over him “if he voices his opinion, and if he uses his freedom of expression to criticize the government,” Suon Bunsak said.

Chan Soveth’s case comes as the Cambodian government is faces broad criticism for a judiciary widely seen as biased and corrupt. The US says it wants no political prisoners in Cambodia and that the government must improve its rights record if it wants a better bilateral partnership.

In a brief meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in November, US President Barack Obama said the US remains concerned about the detention of Mam Sonando, the owner of Beehive Radio, who was also implicated in the alleged secessionist plot.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said this week’s release order will relieve some pressure from a tense atmosphere, at both the local and international level. But he said the judge likely made the decision because “if the court adds another issue, Mr. Chan Soveth’s case, it is not good.”

Chan Soveth is accused of aiding the escape of a man named Bun Rotha, who authorities say led an anti-government movement in Kratie, a claim Bun Rotha, who has fled the country, denies.

Am Sam Ath said Chan Soveth is not guilty of any crime and should have the charges against him dropped. Chan Soveth has worked to help victims of land grabs, including women and children, and not criminals, Am Sam Ath said.

“We wish the court to drop it in the near future, in order to allow Mr. Chan Soveth to fully continue his progress as a human rights defender, without any fear affecting his duties and activities,” Am Sam Ath said.