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U.N. Envoy Meets With Justice Minister, Union Leaders During Official Visit

UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith listens to a reporter's questions during a press conference at her main office in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016. Smith on Wednesday wrapped up her ten-day mission to Cambodia during which she met with the government officials, people of non-governmental organizations and opposition party lawmakers. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Rhona Smith began her 10-day visit to Cambodia on Tuesday and is scheduled to meet with more government officials in the coming days.

U.N. human rights envoy Rhona Smith has met with the Cambodia’s justice minister, the government’s human rights committee, and unionists during a routine fact-finding mission to the country.

According to justice spokesman Chin Malin, Smith expressed concerns to Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana over the use of pre-trial detention amid a wide-ranging anti-drugs campaign.

Malin said during talks with Vathana, Smith did not raise political issues for discussion.

“What she was concerned about was the increase in pre-trial detention, meaning that temporary detention shouldn’t happen in every case, so she wants to let convicts make bail to serve their punishment [in the community],” he said.

Malin added that the government had decided to start a pilot community service project in Battambang province, adding that the project would be supported by the United Nations to avoid a negative backlash from the general public.

He added that the U.N. was also helping to improve the efficiency of court officials.

Smith, however, told reporters that she continued to have “a lot of concerns” about the progress of reforms in Cambodia.

Smith began her 10-day visit to Cambodia on Tuesday and is scheduled to meet with more government officials in the coming days.

Earlier during her visit, Smith met some 20 union leaders who expressed concerns over the labor rights situation in the country.

Ath Thorn, president of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, said the labor leaders had raised the controversial passage of the trade union law last year, which he said meant workers’ representatives no longer had the power to advocate for labor rights.

He also said that unionists were now routinely targeted in lawsuits for their work

“I’m facing seven lawsuits,” he said. “All the suits are related to my work assisting workers. In some cases, we didn’t take part in protests or strikes, but we were accused of causing violence. It’s very unjust.”

A U.N. Spokesperson said: “A number of areas of concern were raised, including issues relating to charges still pending against trade union leaders, new reporting obligations on the financial affairs of unions, and issues of ensuring representation of workers in disputes with companies.”

Heng Sour, a labor spokesman, could not be reached for comment.

On the first day of her visit, Smith said she was concerned by the possibility of violence ahead of a general election scheduled for June after meeting with Keo Remy, head of the government’s human rights committee.

In response to a question over threats of violence issued by senior officials, Smith said Remy had agreed that such threats were “problematic and not helpful before elections.”

However, Remy said that the most recent of such threats, when Vong Soth, social affairs minister, said opponents of the government could be “hit with a bamboo stick”, was “not a threat, but rather a lesson in how the law works”.