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Rights Monitors Raise Concerns Over Detention of Cambodian Youth Activists

FILE: United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith speaks during a news conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Samrang Pring
FILE: United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith speaks during a news conference in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 9, 2019. REUTERS/Samrang Pring

The Special Rapporteur for Human Rights to Cambodia expressed concern on Tuesday over the recent slew of arrests of youth and rights activists, who attempted to protest restrictions on the right to free assembly in Phnom Penh.

Rhona Smith, who is in her second mandate as a rights rapporteur to Cambodia, said in a Facebook post that she was concerned about the recent arrest of individuals, including a monk, on “incitement” charges, which she said was in violation of articles in the Cambodian Constitution.

“I encourage Cambodian authorities to ensure that these rights are respected and protected and to create an environment in which individuals are able to exercise these rights,” she said in the Facebook post.

“I urge that those arrested are promptly brought before a court of law and their due process rights are fully respected. I am following these events closely in Cambodia,” she added.

Since the start of September, at least seven youth and rights activists from groups like Khmer Thavrak and Khmer Intellectual Students Association have been arrested for alleged incitement to protest rights violations and the arrest of prominent Cambodians, like teachers’ union member Rong Chhun.

The arrests include Khmer Thavrak members, Venerable Koet Saray, Tha Lavi and Eng Malay, who is also known as So Meta; and Mr. Mean Prommony with the Khmer Intellectual Students Association, who were planning a week-long protest but were blocked by Phnom Penh officials and security personnel.

Three other Khmer Thavrak members were arrested and detained in August, as well as three members from environment advocacy group Mother Nature.

Rights groups have slammed the arrests and called for the youth activists to be released.

Soeng Senkaruna, senior human rights monitor at ADHOC, said the latest string of arrests was creating a human rights crisis that would attract further pressure from the international community, referring to the recent partial withdrawal of trade privileges to the European Union.

“In fact, the E.U. has already used its influence to remove the 20 percent of [products in the] preferential tariff system, and we are concerned that if Cambodia remains in this situation, other international communities may be monitoring us,” he said.

Chad Roedemeier, spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, said on Monday that the United States supported the rights to free expression and association and was very concerned over the arrests of Cambodians seeking to exercise these freedoms.

“We urge the government to facilitate a process of open dialogue and reconciliation with all stakeholders,” he said in an email.

One of the arrested activists, So Meta, was detained by police after she and other activists submitted a petition to the U.S. Embassy detailing the rights situation in Cambodia.

Chhay Kimkhoeun, spokesperson for the National Police, justified law enforcement officials’ actions citing the need to protect national security.

“[Rights groups] just make accusations. From their perspective, they must make accusations. But for the government, we do [things] only for social security and safety. That’s all,” he said.

In response to concerns raised by Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith, Chin Malin, a senior official of the Ministry of Justice, said the rapporteur was only reacting to the reports she had obtained, instead pointing to her statement calling for authorities to implement due process in these cases.

“She encourages the authorities to apply the law to those who violate the law in accordance with the court procedures,” he said. “So, this is what the authorities are implementing. And this is what other democratic societies adhering to the rule of law always do, meaning that enforcing the law against those violating the law.”

On Tuesday, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Mary Lawlor also commented on Twitter expression concern over the government’s characterization of Khmer Thavrak and Mother Nature’s activities as illegal.

“I am also receiving reports of planned searches of other NGOs, & that Human Rights Defenders are being arrested & imprisoned,” she wrote on Twitter.