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Cambodian Government Uses NGO Law to Silence Critics

By Siena Anstis

I just published an article which is basically an abstract of the major essay I wrote on ‘repressive legislation’ in Cambodia as a conclusion to the internship. You can view the original here and an abstract below:

In late July the Cambodian government released a third draft of its highly contentious Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO Law). A number of provisions in the law have the potential to impair the activities of human rights and civil society actors in the country.

The draft law, in a likely violation of freedom of expression which is protected both in the Cambodian Constitution and the ratified International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), makes it mandatory that any group of Cambodians (including clubs and networks) operating as a non profit in Cambodia register with the government. These bodies also have to fulfill a number of complex and technical registration requirements. If they fail to do so, the government has a ‘legitimate’ excuse to prevent them from operating. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), a human rights organization operating across Cambodia, dubs this approach the “tyranny of the technicality” and believes it is likely that the government will use this power to shut down entities advocating for human rights or reporting on government corruption.

For ‘informal networks’ or loosely associated groups of individuals like farmers and taxi drivers, who do not have the means to open bank accounts or have formal office addresses, these requirements could severely impair their ability to register. It may force a majority of them to operate illegally, rendering them even more vulnerable. These networks are key partners in the development process, providing first-hand information on the situation of at-risk groups in the country and assisting international donors who continue to fund about half of the Cambodian government’s budget.

While these concerns may seem speculative, there have already been a number of recent situations foreshadowing what is to come. For example, the Ministry of Interior, without any clear justification, arbitrarily closed an NGO called Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT). A few weeks before, the NGO had published a report finding that the compensation offered by the government to households affected by a government railway project and slated for resettlement was too low.

LICADHO’s director, Naly Pilorge, perhaps best summarized the overall effect of the NGO Law were it to pass: “Everything that would happen to informal networks under the draft law is already happening now [like STT being shut down]. If the law passes, it legalizes these restrictions.”

Repression through new laws

Activists believe the NGO Law is representative of a larger trend by the Cambodian government to use ‘repressive’ legislation to impair freedom of expression and assembly.

During his recent unofficial visit to the country, Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression and opinion, dubbed this emerging Cambodian style of governance a “legal dictatorship.” Surya Subedi, the current UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, has called it a “legal offensive.”

Along with the NGO Law, the new Penal Code and the Law on Peaceful Assembly also facilitate this trend of repression through the courts in Cambodia.

Commenting on the Penal Code, the Cambodian Minister of Information, Khieu Kanharith, said: “Before, using the argument of ‘freedom of expression’ and opposition party status, some people could insult anybody or any institution. This is not the case now.”

Human rights bodies in Cambodia are particularly concerned by the possibility that Penal Code provisions like incitement to commit a felony and defamation will be indiscriminately used to silence activists in the same way the crime of disinformation under the former UNTAC Criminal Code was applied.

Two recent cases justify this concern:

A LICADHO staff member was charged with incitement during his appeal hearing in July. Originally charged with disinformation for distributing anti-Vietnamese pamphlets, the judge not only violated international fair trial standards, but also clearly affirmed that the court believes that this type of political leafleting can actually constitute an act to cause unrest in Cambodia or ‘incitement.’

A second case is that of Seng Kunnaka. In December 2010, Kunnaka, an employee of the World Food Program, was convicted on a charge of criminal incitement under the new Penal Code for printing and sharing material from KI-Media, an online blog that aggregates information critical of the government. He was sentenced to six months in jail and a $243 fine.

The third ‘repressive law’, the Law on Peaceful Assembly, is primarily giving the authorities a means to isolate and neutralize protests. The law provides for the creation of “Freedom Parks” across Cambodia. These parks are assigned zones for peaceful protests of up to 200 people. They are typically isolated from heavily trafficked areas. Authorities use the existence of these parks as an excuse to disperse peaceful assemblies not happening within their confines.


Third draft of the Cambodian Associations & NGO law out

Last week, the Cambodian government released a third draft of the Associations & NGO law. LICADHO’s commentary on this draft of the law can be accessed here. The International Centre for Not For Profit Law (ICNL) has also released a brief analysis available here. In summary, the key issue – the fact that it makes registration mandatory – remains.

LICADHO makes the following recommendations:

• Registration must be voluntary. The law’s mandatory registration provisions violate Cambodia’s own Constitution, international norms, and multiple international conventions which Cambodia has ratified. It also puts the NGO Law in direct conflict with several other Cambodian laws, creating a confused, impossible-to- navigate legal landscape for all groups wishing to assemble or undertake a broad array of activities in Cambodia.

• The law should specify that organizations and associations are temporarily authorized to operate while their registration applications are pending.

• The government must articulate a justification for the law, particularly in light of Cambodia’s 2007 Civil Code. The current stated purposes in Article 2 are entirely unsatisfactory: “giving” rights that Cambodians already possess, and providing opportunities that already exist.9 Stating a coherent justification will allow Cambodia’s legislators the ability to assess the stated purpose of the law and determine whether it is merited or whether modifications are warranted.

The law has moved to the Council of Ministers, which in Cambodia is the final stage of review before a law moves to the National Assembly for ‘debate’ (Hun Sen’s party, the Cambodian People’s Party has a majority and it is highly unlikely that the debate would lead to the necessary amendments, or anything else fruitful). For more updates on the law, “like” the Oppose the Cambodian NGO & Associations Law page.

Regional Symposium on the Criminalization of Free Speech, Expression and Opinion in Asia in Jakarta, Indonesia

By Siena Anstis

On July 15 and 16, I attended the Regional Symposium on the Criminalization of Free Speech, Expression and Opinion in Asia in Jakarta, Indonesia. The symposium marked the end of Frank La Rue’s, the UN Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, visit to the Southeast Asian region.

The symposium covered a number of different themes, from repressive legislation (one of the key concerns in Cambodia) to threats faced by human rights activists and the State sanctioned killing of journalists.

Decriminalize Free Speech

La Rue opened the symposium with a clear message: free speech needs to be decriminalized. Authoritarian regimes used to employ force to intimidate the population. However, this came at a huge political cost and these regimes are now “intimidating with the law.” La Rue underlined that the international community, including the United Nations, has not opposed this tactic forcefully enough.

The Special Rapporteur emphasized that he believes exceptional limitations on freedom of expression are necessary, but these should only be used in a democratic society (notably one where the judiciary is capable of interpreting the law according to international standards). For example, the use of incitement to crackdown on pamphleting in Cambodia is “absurd.” Where censorship is necessary – for example, with hate speech and child pornography – an independent body, and not the State, should apply these exceptions. “When government gets to control content, it goes to the benefit of political power. These censorship laws become an excuse for governments to limit freedom of expression,” said La Rue.

Repressive legislation and impunity

One of the key themes emerging from all panels, with delegates representing Southeast Asia and South Asia, was the use of legislation to undermine the work of human rights activists, as well as the total impunity of those who commit human rights violations.

In Thailand, the lèse majesté law is a key concern. Pravit Rojanaphruk, a journalist from Thailand, explained how the line between defamation and criticism of the monarchy is blurred. There is also no transparency as to the number of people detained under the law. A recent estimate stood at 300 people charged with an estimate 11 detained. Naturally, the threat of criminal sanctions under the law has a ‘chilling’ effect on freedom of expression.

In Cambodia, three enacted laws (and two laws in draft form) give the government significant control over civil society. A discussion between Kek Pung, the President of LICADHO, and delegates demonstrated the total absurdity of the situation. Pung asked for suggestions on how to address this issue in Cambodia. The panelists offered some feedback, all deemed inapplicable in the Cambodian context: the friendly parliamentarians are the opposition, but their leader, Sam Rainsy, is in exile. Commissioners at the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights’ (AICHR) are appointed and dismissed by national governments. Donors are mum, some in collusion with the government while others do not want to rock the boat.

In Malaysia, a mix of secular and religious laws are used to crack down on minority religious groups, as well as political movements and more liberal Muslim groups. “Silencing opinion and expression in Malaysia happens not only for crimes against religion, but all forms of dissent against government policies and political powers. It is not peculiar for the government to crackdown on defaming Islam, because they do so on all forms of difference in opinion, period,” explained Masjaliza Hamzah, Executive Director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Malaysia.

Ending human rights violations

In his closing speech, La Rue listed concrete suggestions on how CSOs and NGOs could end government impunity and promote human rights. He drew primarily on experiences in Guatemala, his home country.

For example, he suggested the establishment of independent national investigative bodies such as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. While this Commission does not have the power to prosecute, it does the investigatory work in human rights crimes. He also suggested persuading each country to adopt a national human rights commission.

La Rue also discussed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Although it was at first riddled with its own set of challenges, he praised it for providing justice and in some cases saving lives. He compared this to the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), which was founded in 2009, and has been described as toothless. La Rue suggested that having the mechanism in place is a first step; regional civil society bodies should now push the AICHR by referring cases and lobbying for greater impartiality in its commissioners.

As a Special Rapporteur, he highlighted the role these individuals play in highlighting human rights abuses. For example, issuing a press release during a Rapporteur’s visit can serve to draw media attention to certain issues. He noted that the Special Rapporteurs can go beyond their immediate mandate, allowing them to leverage a relatively ‘non-political’ mandate. For example, the Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation can deal with everything from water containment to land evictions and the role of big corporations in environmental pollution.

Encouraging a grassroots movement

While interesting, these suggestions seemed to illustrate how intractable the situation is in Cambodia. NGOs like LICADHO are drawing on all the resources suggested by the Special Rapporteur. Yet, this is not enough.

However, it does seem that one last avenue, not specifically mentioned by La Rue, has not been sufficiently leveraged. In retrospect, it seems self-evident: the population needs to start lobbying on a mass scale for change and civil society groups need to promote and support this. However, abuse by the police and unfair criminal sentencing by the judiciary has a damning effect on these efforts. Moreover, people have not forgotten the country’s harsh history.

Yet, there is proof that such lobbying is possible and (somewhat) effective: in 2008, a nation-wide thumb printing petition campaign collected over one million signatures in favor of passing the long-awaited Anti-Corruption law. While the law was not adopted until 2011, it does suggest that there is a population willing to be mobilized and capable of organizing itself.

LICADHO employee, Leang Sokchouen, at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal

Leang Sokchouen at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal. Photo by LICADHO.

Yesterday, I attended Leang Sokchouen’s trial at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal. Sokchouen is a LICADHO employee who was charged with disinformation (under the UNTAC Penal Code) in September 2010. Here an extract of the LICADHO press release issued after the trial court ruling:

Sokchouen was accused of distributing anti-government fliers in Takeo Province on January 4, 2010. Sokchouen was a longtime acquaintance of co-defendant Tach Khong Phoung, but consistently testified that he had no knowledge on the flier incident. The so-called evidence provided by the police against Sokchouen consisted of a simple list of phone numbers claiming Sokchouen and Tach Khong Phoung had called each other.

Another defendant, Tach Vannak, initially claimed while detained at the Ministry of Interior’s National Police that Sokchouen was involved in distributing the fliers.

However, Vannak retracted part of his statement in court yesterday, saying that he only implicated Sokchouen because of false promises made by police interrogators. He claimed police promised him that he would be allowed to go back to his family in exchange for his cooperation.

(…) The prosecution produced no in-court witness testimony or evidence. The judge relied entirely on written statements and four alleged witness statements from police officers. None of these individuals were ever called to court by the investigating judge.

By all appearances, the investigating judge did not do any investigative work on the case whatsoever. This is contrary to the spirit of Article 127 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that an investigating judge “has the obligation to collect inculpatory as well as exculpatory evidence.” This oversight left the trial judge to rely entirely on police investigation report – written before the suspects were questioned or arrested.

Conversely, the Sokchouen’s defense team provided extensive in-court testimony, including evidence that Sokchouen was in Phnom Penh – not Takeo – on January 4, 2010.

The judge stated that in-court testimonies by the three accused “could not be trusted” and based his decision entirely upon the police report and interrogation. Article 118 of the Code of Criminal Procedure states that police reports can be used for “information only,” but that they may also be considered as evidence if they are not “proven false.” Despite strong evidence that the police report was indeed false, the judge failed in his duty to evaluate its veracity. He simply accepted the report as truth.

In appeal, Sokchouen was represented by two LICADHO lawyers, who were given less than 24 hours to prepare. During the hearing, Sokchouen’s lawyers requested bail. However, after a five minute discussion, the judges refused citing possible public disorder. The judges, along with the defence, interviewed Sokchouen. In under two hours – with two of the judges regularly dozing off – the court announced that their final verdict would be communicated on July 14th at 8am. While about 100 people showed up to support Sokchouen, only a small number were allowed in the court room despite it being a public trial.

Sous Chantha, union leader, released.

By Siena Anstis

Trade union leader Sous Chantha’s wife holds a press conference after her husband’s trial on Friday, June 24th 2011.

When I first arrived in Phnom Penh, I was invited to attend a ceremony in support of Sous Chantha, a Cambodian union leader. Along with his family and other garment factory workers, we went to a pagoda near CC1 and participated in a Buddhist blessing. A crowd of friends, family and supporters then walked to the correctional center and released balloons. The hope was that Chantha would see them as they floated above the prison walls. At the time, Chantha had been held a month longer than provisional detention allows in Cambodian law (unless there is a formal hearing to renew provisional detention with a maximum of 12 months total).

Yesterday, I attended Chantha’s trial at the Phnom Penh Capital Court of First Instance. Chantha was first accused of drug trafficking, but the charges were eventually lowered to drug distribution (some believe this change happened because it was blatantly not trafficking, others because of pressure from unions and companies buying from Cambodian garment factories).

The facts laid out in LICADHO’s press release shortly after his arrest were confirmed during the trial by Chantha and a garment worker who had witnessed the events (he was on a motorbike behind Chantha when the arrest happened). The garment worker said that the police had beaten Chantha after forcing him off his motorbike. Chantha said the military police had “turned him away” (translation from Khmer) from his motorbike. It is likely that Chantha did not use the same language as the witness in order to not attract more trouble. When Chantha was allowed to turn around again and look at his motorbike, the police shone a flashlight on the back hatch and accused him of having drugs. All Chantha could see was the corner of a small plastic packet near the motorcycle’s battery; the other nine packet of drugs were only revealed to him when he arrived at the police station. Both Chantha and the witness confirmed that there was indeed no roadblock at the time of Chantha’s arrest. Notably, the military police who had arrested Chantha failed to show up at the trial.

In their closing statements, the defense lawyers argued that Chantha could not be convicted for the distribution because this would require evidence of a buyer. Moreover, it was possible to slip a thin plastic baggy of drugs into the back of the motorcycle without actually opening it (i.e. it could have been done in the factory parking lot which is a public space). The defense lawyers also emphasized the suspicious nature of the arrest: it happened shortly after he transferred his union’s 1000 members from the Independent & Democratic Union Federation (IDUF) to the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C-CAWDU). The prosecutor argued that because Chantha claimed during the trial to not do drugs at all, by default the drugs must have been meant for distribution.

After about two hours of questioning and an hour-long wait, the judge called Chantha back in and announced the verdict. They found him guilty. He was sentenced to ten months in jail, but ordered only to serve seven months and five days in prison. Since this was the time he had spent in pre-trial detention and the prosecutor decided not to appeal, he was released that evening. As Chantha walked out of the court at midday to be brought back to the prison before being released, he was applauded by a garment factory workers and his family. His father started crying.

From my understanding of the trial (through a translator) there was no evidence to support distribution charges. The following day, the Cambodia Daily reported that “local and international rights groups, including Amnesty International, raised doubts over the charges and said that they seemed to be linked to his union activities. Some said the arrest served to intimidate unionists.” Moeun Tola, from the Community Legal Education Center, was also quoted in the Cambodia Daily: “We’re not happy with the verdict. It’s unfair for him, an injustice for him that he was charged with drug distribution. We still believe his case was set up.” The presiding judge, Din Sivuthy, has been involved in previous human rights cases with suspicious (and “shocking”) verdicts (see this acid attack case and journalist Hang Chakra’s conviction).

Chantha was released from prison yesterday evening. After participating in a Buddhist ceremony, he returned home to his family after having spent over seven months in prison.

Using new laws to impair freedom of expression in Cambodia

By Siena Anstis

This past week I started writing a brief on the use of repressive legislation in Cambodia to restrict freedom of expression and related rights like freedom of association and assembly. With a majority in Parliament, the ruling Cambodian’s People Party has passed or is about to pass legislation that could be used to legitimize their crackdown on human rights defenders, NGOs, journalists and other concerned parties critical of the government.

Penal Code

The new Cambodian Penal Code was passed in December 2010. It replaces the former UNTAC Penal Code. While the new Penal Code does not contain the same UNTAC disinformation clause (which has been used to jail journalists and wrongfully convict other individuals), it creates a number of new crimes susceptible to abuse. This includes a provision for “incitement” which is defined as incitement to commit a crime or incitement of “serious turmoil in society.” Shortly after the passage of the new Penal Code, World Food Program staff member Seng Kunnaka was convicted on the charge of criminal incitement for printing and sharing material from the website ki-media, an online blog critical of the government [Incidentally, as I write this, my access to ki-media is down again. There are rumours the government is having it blocked]. The government is not hiding one of the new Code’s purposes: “Before, using the argument of ‘freedom of expression’ and opposition party status, some people could insult anybody or any institution. This is not the case now,” said the Cambodian Minister of Information.

For a more in-depth analysis of the new Penal Code provisions, check out this report.

Demonstrations Law

The Demonstrations Law was adopted in 2009. It makes it de facto necessary to receive authorization to protest. Demonstrations can be refused if they harm the rights to “freedom and honour of others, good customs of society and national security”. This differs from the ICCPR article which allows for limits on demonstrations only on the basis of “public safety, public order, public health or morals.” Moreover, the law fails to provide judicial redress in cases where authorization is refused. The Centre for Cambodian Human Rights Report also suggests that the law has been used before to crackdown on private meetings. Finally, and possibly the most disconcerting part of the law for the moment, is the creation of “Freedom Parks” across the country. These “Freedom Parks” are areas where protestors can hold protests after providing 12 hours notice. While the parks do not exclude the use of other public venues, there are concerns they may still be used to isolate and neutralize demonstrations.

Anti-Corruption Law

The third law is the Anti Corruption Law passed in May 2011. While a number of corrupt officials have been charged under the law, there are allegations that these charges are more related to factional splits in the ruling party than to corruption in Cambodia. A number of provisions are problematic. In particular, the law does not provide adequate protections for whistleblowers and thus discourages people from coming forward.

Draft Trade Union Law

The draft law contains a number of provisions that offer the government an opportunity to legitimize their crackdown on the trades union sector through the courts. Several articles of the law blatantly violate the International Labor Organization Convention No. 87 (see this article by article analysis of the law). Key concerns include the inclusion of criminal penalties and hefty fines that could be used to threaten union leaders from speaking out against the government. Vague language contained in the law could also be used by the government to curtail freedom of expression. For example, the provision outlawing demonstrations for “purely political purposes” could be used to prevent legal demonstrations or strikes in opposition of government policies.

Draft Associations and NGO Law

This law is currently in draft form, but it is expected that the government will try and pass the law before the end of the year. In violation of freedom of association protected under the Cambodian Constitution and the ICCPR, the law enforces the mandatory registration of associations and NGOs (see this analysis by LICADHO). It also imposes a number of burdensome registration requirements, which would severely restrict the operation of rural grassroots groups with limited resources. It gives authorities unbounded discretion to approve registration applications, with few guidelines to transparently steer these decisions. There is no appeals process if registration is denied. The law is also loosely drafted, giving it an apparently unlimited scope.

In its current form, the law would likely lead to the outlawing of several informal groups which do not want to register with the government or do not have the capacity. These informal networks give a voice to a number of vulnerable groups including sex workers. The likely closure of grassroots NGOs and associations, which provide information to international donors, could impair economic development in Cambodia. With the press muzzled and the private sector often complicit in human rights violations, NGOs are the last body able to report on human rights abuses and corruption in Cambodia.

Apparently a couple of embassies in Phnom Penh (but not the US embassy), when first faced with the Associations & NGO Law, thought it was a perfectly reasonable law to have in place. After all, many Western countries do have some kind of Association and NGO law. What they failed to consider was the Cambodian context. Most importantly, there is no judiciary to enforce the law fairly (see Cambodia’s recent ranking as 35/36 on the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index) or to create a body of precedent that would narrow or at least purposively develop the ambiguity of many of these provisions. Rather, new laws give the government something to point at when they decide to shut down an NGO, move a protest to a Freedom Park or fine a union leader. New laws make it harder to argue that the government is acting out of bounds.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

Sunrith Ham, Deputy Director of Monitoring & Protection at LICADHO: Representing human rights defenders in Cambodia

By Siena Anstis

Sunrith works with a number of human rights victims in Cambodia including the Dey Krahorm community (above). Members of the community were evicted from their land in 2009 for ‘development purposes’ and moved to a relocation site. Their former land remains vacant.

At first face, working as a lawyer in Cambodia seems like a disheartening experience. Corruption is endemic: the rich and powerful bribe judges to have cases found in their favor and use criminal sentencing to deter resistance from members of the community. The police, acting under the instruction of the government, often comply in the harassment and arrest of human rights activists.

Someone recently asked me why anyone would continue working within such a broken legal system. I think Sunrith’s story is a good example of how coping with difficult circumstances in the hope of helping suffering individuals starts with a personal decision – one intimately connected to culture and religion. In the end, perhaps change makers are not inspired by a single defining event, but rather an uphill struggle led by instinct.

Sunrith graduated with a legal diploma from a Phnom Penh university in 1997 at the age of 22. The government appointed him as a law clerk in his hometown. As a government employee, he was making $20 USD a month. His first experience with the evolving Cambodian legal system was not a positive one. He recounts how a woman’s child was arrested and arraigned in front of the judges. The mother offered them a bundle of money carefully tied with a rope made from banana leaves. The money had clearly been saved up – diligently, meticulously, through hardwork. She bought her child’s freedom; the judges did not complain.

Religion and culture can deeply influence a person. In Cambodian culture, and particularly in Buddhist families, youth are taught to obey their superiors. But, Sunrith was different. He felt he had received two messages: to listen to people older than him; but also to question decisions like those made by the judges at the provincial court. He says his religion, Buddhism, also helped him make the difficult decision to leave his clerking position: “I didn’t feel like I was doing a good thing. I felt that if I was not making people feel better, I was not taking the right route.”

His parents were surprised by his decision. As a class-conscious family in a class-conscious society, they were delighted that their son had found work with the government. Despite this family pressure, he left this position to permanently move to Phnom Penh, the country’s growing capital, some 160 km away.

Sunrith’s first job was as a typist. At first, he was content. He was financially independent as the new job paid more than the government. However, after a few months, he began questioning his decision: should someone with a diploma in law work as a typist? Could he push himself to do more?

Soon he decided to leave his relatively comfortable position as a typist and began volunteering and then interning with LICADHO. He spent the first five years working with the Prison Office. Cambodian prisons, notorious for their horrific living conditions, became a second home to him. While others would express fear or disgust towards prisoners, Sunrith was happy to talk with them, bringing them bananas to help the day past faster. Seeing people energized and rewarded by his presence clearly made him happy.

Eventually, Sunrith transferred to LICADHO’s Human Rights Monitoring Office and this helped him make the decision to become a practicing lawyer. “You see injustice from case to case, but as an observer [a human rights monitor who tracks human rights abuses] you cannot express yourself, you are not in the system.”

Sunrith says that some days he is exhausted and considers leaving the legal profession. Yet, his friends and colleagues convince him that if he stops working, human rights defenders will have a difficult time finding a trusted lawyer to represent them free of charge. Around LICADHO, Sunrith has the reputation of a formidable lawyer: someone with a chilling confidence in front of the Cambodian Supreme Court, the country’s highest judicial body.

While he acknowledges that changing old societal practices would be difficult, he does believe that he can help change the attitude within the courts in Cambodia. To fight corruption and injustice, Sunrith hopes that the next generation will not be taught to accept the orders of their superiors, but rather to question authority. He says that future legal professionals should not concentrate on whether or not there is law, but rather on implementing the existing law and abiding by the rules set out within.

Working with LICADHO, Sunrith, who has been in the thick of human rights activities in Cambodia since the late 90’s, does note some positive changes. He says that the number of political killings has decreased substantially. Rather, the government is now using the courts to dissuade people from challenging them. The fact that the government’s weapon is no longer primarily the gun, but rather the law, is seen as a step – although a twisted one – forward.

Watching community activism in action also seems to give Sunrith renewed hope. He speaks admiringly of the communities living around Prey Lang forest who came all the way to Phnom Penh a few weeks ago to protest the destruction of their forest. He advises the residents of Boeung Kak lake, another community being evicted from their land, to believe in their struggle. “How can you change injustice? How can you change the attitude of the government? Hope comes day to day, from the people. It does not come from institutions or the policymakers.” He says that while Boeung Kak lake residents may lose their homes, in the end, they have set a fighting precedent that will hopefully grow and overcome the “cancer”of corruption and exploitation ailing the country.

Dey Krahorm evictions

A former Dey Krahorm community member speaks to an audience of media, concerned NGO leaders and fellow activists. More photos are available here.

By Siena Anstis

The picture above is from yesterday’s press conference held by Dey Krahorm community leaders. The press conference was originally organized to protest the holding of a football tournament on the former Dey Krahorm lands (the community was evicted in January 2009).

With activists having successfully lobbied for the cancellation of the tournament, the press conference turned into an opportunity to celebrate this success. However, it was also clear that Dey Krahorm residents remain frustrated and saddened by the fact that their lands remain empty, despite being kicked off them for “development” purposes.

Their living conditions also remain precarious: one speaker asked NGOs for medicine and food and several children and community members were sick. LICADHO’s Medical Office was able to provide some assistance by coming to the conference and providing medication, as well as helping arrange counselling services.

More information on Dey Krahorm can be found here, photos from the eviction in 2009 here and a press release on yesterday’s meeting here.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

Visiting Takhmao prison

By Siena Anstis
Yesterday, I went with the LICADHO Prison Office staff to Takhmao prison on the outskirts of Phom Penh to conduct interviews with inmates and visit Leang Sokchoeun. He used to work with LICADHO, but was arrested in May 2010 and accused of involvement in the distribution of anti-government leaflets. He was charged with disinformation under Article 62 of the UNTAC law. On May 29, 2011, he will have been in prison for one year and is slated to remain incarcerated for another year. Sokchoeun’s mother was with us, bringing her son bags of fruits and vegetables. The government gives each prisoner only 0.70 USD for food per day (to learn more about prison conditions in Cambodia, read Dararith’s story). Like other prisoners, Sokchouen relies on external support to survive. Sokchouen and his lawyers have filed an appeal, but they have not yet received any information on its status.

Shortly after Sokchoeun’s sentencing, LICADHO published this briefing paper on the “Role of the Cambodian Judiciary in Political Cases.” The paper highlights a number of irregularities in Sokchouen’s trial that demonstrate how the government, the police and the courts work together to punish Cambodian activists. Another report from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), on the situation of human rights and democracy in Cambodia in 2011, underlines that “the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence continues to be one of the most important factors preventing Cambodia from developing a fair, just and inclusive society based on the rule of law.”

Takhmao is Cambodia’s ‘model prison,’ built with funding from the Australian government through their Cambodia Criminal Justice Project. The Prison Fellowship, a Born Again Christian NGO founded by former Nixon aide, Charles Colson, also provides some educational programs for inmates. Juvenile, male and female prisoners live in separate areas, which is rare in Cambodian prisons. Despite these benefits, this prison is still 332 per cent over its capacity.

Prisoners hang on bars as we walk by to the visiting area. Some stand in small groups outside. I am told that each prisoner gets about 1-2 hours of exercise per day. However, corruption in Cambodia is pervasive and it is not clear whether this is a privilege that inmates pay the prison guards for, or whether it is a rule that gets enforced regardless.

Overcrowding in prisons is one of many problems in the Cambodian judicial and penal systems. Another disturbing issue documented by LICADHO here is that prisoners must pay for transportation to their trials. Many prisoners are poor and cannot afford this fee and thus are tried in absentia. That same report by LICADHO also notes that less than one per cent of inmates in the prisons nearest to Phnom Penh, where the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal is located, have appeals pending.

For more information on prisons in Cambodia, you can consult LICADHO’s “Prison Issues” page.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia: Reconciling Family Norms with Sexual Orientation

I recently published a longer article on the LGBT Pride Week in Cambodia. Here is an extract:

Last week, Cambodia finished celebrating its third official lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) pride celebration, a week of movie screenings, workshops and other activities organized by Rainbow Community Kampuchea (RoCK).

The celebration of LGBT rights in Cambodia has come a long way. Between 2003 and the first official LGBT pride week in 2009, these celebrations in Cambodia were limited to just one evening a year.

Collette O’Regan, a member of the organizing committee, says that the hosting of such an extensive and well-organized week, like Pride 2011, marks a new beginning for LGBT rights in Cambodia. Previously, it was mostly the ‘men having sex with men’ or MSM community that was organized and supported by donors. This necessarily excluded women and stigmatized transgender and sexual orientation by linking it to HIV/AIDS. “You can imagine what this leads to, including horrific discrimination, violence, self-harm and suicide,” she said.

You can read the full article here on Toward Freedom.

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