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European Groups Call for End to ‘Harassment’ of Activists

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen

WASHINGTON DC - Two European rights groups are calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to stop using the courts to punish his critics, in what they called an “end of year crackdown” on activists.

The World Organization Against Torture and International Federation for Human Rights said in an open letter to the premier that wrongful sentencing of human rights workers and other activists continued a “pattern of impunity” and ongoing harassment of government critics.

The two groups together comprise the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, which “expresses its deep concern about court decisions in late December 2012 that led to the wrongful sentencing of two prominent land and housing rights defenders and a continued pattern of impunity in the high-profile murder of a trade union leader,” according to the letter. “The Observatory fears that such decisions were adopted during that time of year to avoid scrutiny by the international community and the media.”

The letter was referring to the three-year jail sentence given housing rights activist Yorm Bopha, the suspended sentence for housing activist Tim Sakmony and the re-incarceration of Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun, two men widely considered innocent in the murder of union activist Chea Vichea in 2004. All of these took place in December.

They also voiced concern for the imprisonment of Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, one of the few independent broadcasters in the country.

“Accordingly, the Observatory calls upon the Cambodian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Ms. Yorm Bopha and Messrs. Born Samnang, Sok Sam Oeun and Mam Sonando, and to put an end to the judicial harassment against them,” FIDH President Souhayr Belhassen and OMCT Secretary-General Gerald Staberock said in the letter.

The groups also pointed to the summons of Adhoc rights investigator Chan Soveth, for allegedly abetting the escape of suspects in a government crackdown on a so-called secessionist movement, charges that have been decried as dubious by Cambodian rights organizations.

There was no immediate response from Hun Sen. Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the organizations were “creating a culture to let the courts be influenced by the government.”

In fact, the Cambodian courts are already widely held as biased toward members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, as well as powerful business interests.

Nevertheless, Phay Siphan said the Observatory should “use its energy or its resources to help strengthen a better Cambodian judicial process.”