Hun Sen under fire over activist arrests

The National Assembly in Phnom Penh. Source: Wikimedia

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen of being involved in the case of six human rights activists charged with bribing the alleged mistress of an opposition leader.

HRW claimed the charges filed on Monday were politically motivated and part of an initiative by the authorities “to curtail domestic and international human rights monitoring in Cambodia”.

“No one should mistake these prosecutions for anything other than Prime Minister Hun Sen’s effort to undo decades of work by Cambodian groups and the UN to promote the human rights of all Cambodians,” HRW Asia director Brad Adams announced.

Four prominent activists from the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc and a former member of the National Election Committee (NEC) were imprisoned on bribery charges over a sex scandal involving deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha.

UN administrator Sally Soen was charged in absentia as an accomplice after failing to appear for questioning.

Kea Sophal, representing Adhoc, said the organisation’s four members were charged with bribing a witness, the same charge facing opposition chief Seang Chet last week for promising to pay around US$500 to the alleged mistress after the scandal erupted.

Vibol announced: “The court did not show any evidence against my clients yet. They just detained them.”

Wan-Hea Lee of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said: “UN officials have immunity from legal processes arising from their actions undertaken in the line of duty. The UN has sent a formal response to this effect to the Royal Government, and we await a response.”

The US Embassy also said it was worried about the charges.

“The US Embassy is deeply concerned by the charges filed today by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and is monitoring these cases closely,” embassy spokesman Jay Raman said.

EU ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar raised similar concerns: “The current political situation, including recent actions in relation to opposition members of parliament and the detention of NGO officials, will be among the issues discussed at the EU-Cambodia Joint Committee,” Edgar said. “An environment in which political parties and civil society can operate freely is an essential foundation for credible elections whose results will command legitimacy.”

A statement from 59 NGOs, including Licadho, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee and Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, also condemned the arrests.

“The targeting of these individuals…is the latest escalation in a far-reaching government assault on civil society ahead of upcoming local and national elections, and is a clear reprisal for support provided by rights workers in a politically sensitive case,” the statement said.

“The case is a farcical use of both the criminal justice system and state institutions as tools to intimidate, criminalise and punish the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and civil society,” it stated.