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Rights Groups Condemn Arrests of Activists, Opposition Member

A leader, foreground, of Cambodian activists controls the group to pay respects in front of Royal Palace during a march toward the National Assembly, in Phnom Penh, file photo.
A leader, foreground, of Cambodian activists controls the group to pay respects in front of Royal Palace during a march toward the National Assembly, in Phnom Penh, file photo.

Lawyers for seven imprisoned activists on Thursday appealed for their release, following a swift trial and sentencing earlier this week that has been widely criticized.

The women were arrested in front of City Hall on Monday, as they protested the city’s inability to prevent flooding in a neighborhood where a contentious development project filled in a massive lake and forced the evictions of thousands of families.

International rights groups and dozens of local organizations have condemned the jailing of the activists, who each received a one-year sentence and were fined $500 for disturbing public order, in a swift, one-day trial.

“What is quite clear is that the government has a very low level of respect for core civil and political rights like freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of peaceful association,” Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch Asia, said.

Ny Chakrya, lead investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said the government was using the courts to “pressure” activists in an effort to end their protests. He also noted many such arrests happen at the end of the year, when the government is seeking aid from donors. In this case, he said, the arrests themselves, under traffic laws, were not legal.

The detention of the activists coincides with the arrest of a prominent member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, Meach Sovannara. In this case, too, Ny Chakrya said, a detainee is being used for political purposes.

In Meach Sovannara’s case, analysts say, the arrest appears aimed at strengthening the ruling Cambodian People’s Party position in negotiations over reform of the National Election Committee. Meach Sovannara’s arrest “is to pressure the CNRP to soften its stance in accepting what the CPP wants,” Ny Chakrya said.

Meach Sovannara is accused of insurrection, for alleged involvement in a protest July 15 that turned violent. But Ny Chakrya said Meach Sovannara had sought non-violence and had not taken part in the injuries of security personnel when the protest turned violent. Officials say they are negotiating for his release.

But government spokesman Phay Siphan said the arrest was a judicial, not political, matter. The Rescue Party has representation in the National Assembly and is a “partner” of the government, he said. He declined to comment on the arrest of the seven activists.

Those arrests, including the detention of prominent activist Tep Vanny, have been widely condemned.

Sia Phearum, secretariat director of the Housing Rights Task Force, said the arrests were a way for the authorities to avoid finding a solution to the problem of the Boeung Kak evictions and filling in of the lake.

“When people demand a solution to the flooding that is destroying their property, and the authorities use a traffic law to pressure and break the spirit of Cambodians, I think that’s not smart leadership,” he said. “It is deadlocked leadership without the ability to solve the problem, but to silence voices, like a silly parent who beats a child to make it stop crying.”

Yorm Bopha, another prominent activist from Boeung Kak, who spent more than a year in jail on charges related to protesting, said the seven women wanted contaminated water drained from their homes. Their arrests were “unjust,” she said. She called on the international community to pressure the government to release the activists.

However, Peter Maguire, a professor and author who watches Cambodia closely, said that is unlikely to happen. “Cambodian democracy was built on sand,” he said. The UN failed to put in place legitimate processes in 1991, he said, which “set the tone for two decades of thugocracy.”

“When Hun Sen acts undemocratically, the ‘international community’ makes hollow threats, the Cambodian prime minister calls their bluff, and the [foreigners] cringe and then fold,” he said. “It is a well-established set piece by now.”