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Rights Groups Meet Amid Shrinking Freedoms, Increased Dangers

Social activists carry an anti-corruption banner during a rally in Phnom Penh, file photo.

Rights workers met to discuss these incidents and others at a forum in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.

PHNOM PENH - Local rights activists say the first nine months of this year have seen a considerable reduction in rights and freedoms, compared to the same period last year.

From the murder of environmentalist Chut Wutty in April to the arrest of Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando in July and his trial this month, activists and journalists say they are facing increased pressure. And, they say, it is not likely to abate.

Rights workers met to discuss these incidents and others at a forum in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. The meeting comes just days after the killing of environmental journalist Hang Serei Oudom, who was reporting on illegal logging in Ratanakkiri province.

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said at the forum that the ongoing pressure on freedoms was an outgrowth of Cambodia’s culture of impunity, in the lead up to a national election next year.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party and its supporters have nearly full control of the broadcast media, and the courts are widely viewed as corrupt and biased, he said.

“Every day we acknowledge that there has been more trouble with the freedom of expression, because the Cambodian government controls everything and the court system is not independent,” he said.

Cambodians should expect an increase in these pressures as the national election approaches, said Am Sam Ath, lead investigator for the rights group Licahdo.

Tep Vanny, a formerly jailed representative of protesters from the Boeung Kak development site, said at least 14 protesters from the site have been jailed so far. “The government always uses the court to judge and put pressure on land rights,” she told Tuesday’s forum.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said freedom of expression was allowed in Cambodia, but under the law. The killings and jailing of people so far did not mean a decrease in the freedom of expression, he said.