A visiting U.S. human rights envoy on Tuesday urged the government to release and drop charges against five current and former rights workers arrested in April amid what he called a deteriorating political situation in which the courts have disproportionately targeted state critics.
The four employees of local rights group Adhoc were arrested along with a former Adhoc officer now working for the National Election Committee (NEC) and charged with bribing a witness for allegedly paying a woman to deny an alleged affair with deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha. Adhoc has rejected the accusation, which has been widely condemned as politically motivated.
Tom Malinowski, U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said he had petitioned government officials to release the rights defenders.
“We have encouraged the government to release and drop charges against people who were defending the rights and freedoms of the Cambodian people,” he told reporters at the U.S. Embassy on the second day of his two-day visit to Cambodia.
“Defense of human rights is sometimes contentious and controversial work. It often involves criticism of the powers that be. But it is absolutely necessary to the health and stability of any democracy,” he said. “And in this category, I would specifically include the Adhoc activists, the members of the Adhoc organization, including the former member who was a member of the NEC.”
Mr. Malinowski said he had also met with some of the prisoners’ relatives, “and I think it really does seem to me that not only are those families in a very tragic situation, but they are in a very unfair situation that requires some redress.”
The rights envoy said their legal troubles had come amid a “concerning series of arrests and prosecutions” with an undeniable political bent.
“It is pretty plain that over the last several weeks and months in Cambodia, the vast majority of these legal actions have been taken against one side—against people who are seen as critics of the government,” he said. “And I think that gives rise to legitimate questions of politicization of the process.”
During a visit to Cambodia for a regional summit in 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama similarly pressed the government to release its “political prisoners,” singling out radio station owner and government critic Mam Sonando, who was freed the following year.
On Tuesday, Mr. Malinowski refrained from applying the charged label to any of the current prisoners.
“I would say that Cambodia’s in danger of going back to an era in which it has prisoners of conscience, and that this would not be consistent with the image of democratic progress that both the government and people of Cambodia for very good reason want to project,” he said.
Spokesmen for the ministries of interior and justice could not be reached on Tuesday. The government has consistently denied political motives in its investigation of Mr. Sokha’s alleged infidelity, which has been probed by the anti-terrorism department of the Interior Ministry and the Anti-Corruption Unit.
Between meetings at the ministries of foreign affairs, interior and labor, Mr. Malinowski also paid his respects at the wake of Kem Ley, who was gunned down inside a Phnom Penh convenience store on July 10. The popular political analyst was also a frequent critic of the government, sparking accusations of a political assassination.
The suspected gunman, arrested shortly after the murder, claims he killed Kem Ley over a $3,000 debt. But the families of both Kem Ley and his suspected killer say the two men did not know each other and never mentioned the alleged debt.
Mr. Malinowski joined rights groups in calling for a credible investigation of the killing.
“Given the inevitable suspicions that are swirling around this case, I think that the government would benefit from the involvement of independent experts in that investigation,” he said.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen has said that no one has more to lose from this tragedy than the government of Cambodia. If that is true, then no one has more to gain from an independent investigation than the government of Cambodia.”
Mr. Malinowski said there was no denying that “the situation has deteriorated” since the opposition CNRP and ruling CPP embarked on a short-lived rapprochement in 2014 following the previous year’s bitterly disputed election.
He said the coming election cycle—commune elections in 2017 and a national poll in 2018—would once again thrust Cambodia into the international spotlight, and he warned of the risks of blocking peaceful change.
“It’s very, very important to give people the sense that if they want to change things they can do so peacefully through the democratic process,” he said. “And we’ve seen in many, many countries where people don’t have that sense, often they turn in frustration to less peaceful means, to means that lead to destabilization and the very things that I think the government of Cambodia says that it fears.”
The latest spate of arrests has also renewed the threat of U.S. aid cuts.
The U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee last month passed a bill proposing a hold on the $77.8 million in aid earmarked for Cambodia for fiscal year 2017 unless the State Department was certain that the Cambodian government had “ceased violence and harassment” of the opposition and civil society.