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UN Rights Chief: Repression in Cambodia Is Stifling Fundamental Freedoms

FILE - U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Sept. 13, 2021.
FILE - U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet attends a session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva, Sept. 13, 2021.

U.N. monitors probing Cambodia’s human rights situation say increasing government repression against political opponents and civic activists is stifling people's fundamental freedoms.

In a report submitted to the U.N. Human Rights Council, U.N. rights chief Michelle Bachelet praised Cambodia’s economic recovery policies and social protection programs for vulnerable people during the COVID-19 crisis.

But she also slammed abuses by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. She said that the government had given law enforcement sweeping powers to curb the pandemic, and that the misuse of these powers was leading to the curtailment of people’s human rights and fundamental freedoms.

“By the time this report was prepared, my office had received credible reports that at least 110 individuals were held in pre-trial detention and 16 received prison sentences through summary trials for violating COVID-19 restrictions," she said. "Since June, we have been informed of several hundred more reported arrests, exacerbating Cambodia’s already serious prison overcrowding.”

Bachelet said the Cambodian government keeps a tight grip on society, clamping down hard on civic activists and those perceived to be dissidents. She said the human rights situation had further deteriorated since she last reported on conditions in Cambodia in February.

Arrests, attacks

She said more than 60 members of opposition parties had been arbitrarily arrested and most remained in jail. She said at least 14 others had been physically attacked. She said human rights defenders were routinely harassed and intimidated and that trade union activists reportedly were denied the right to assemble peacefully.

"We remain extremely concerned with the impunity for attacks against political activists and human rights defenders," Bachelet said. "Of particular concern are continuing threats of arrest and violence by senior officials against opposition activists hiding in Thailand. These must cease.”

Bachelet urged the government to implement the Juvenile Justice Law it adopted in 2017. This law provides alternatives to detention for young people under age 18, many of whom are still in prison.

She also called on the state to end the forced evictions of people who received no compensation for the loss of their homes and land. She noted that the state had subsequently granted the land to individuals, including senior government officials and their families.

Cambodia’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, An Sokkheurn, dismissed the report from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees as being based on false claims. He said his country’s response to COVID-19 had not restricted human rights. He noted that Cambodia was one of the few countries in the world that did not introduce a state of emergency.