It was already labeled a disastrous year for human rights by several monitoring organizations, and on Friday, Human Rights Watch added to the dour assessment of 2012, saying that impunity reigned, activists were targeted and the government continued to meddle in the affairs of the Khmer Rouge war crimes tribunal.
In its annual report, the New York-based group took aim at the country’s poor showing in its role as Asean host, expressed concern about this year’s national elections, and criticized widespread land-grabbing and use of the courts to stifle voices of dissent.
“Cambodia’s human rights situation took a nosedive in 2012 as [Prime Minister] Hun Sen lashed out at critics, opposition politicians, land rights activists, and others,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Despite his strong grip on power, Hun Sen acted aggressively and erratically at the expense of the Cambodian people, who are bearing the brunt of his increasingly dictatorial rule,” Mr. Adams continued.
The Rights Watch report said that state security forces were used to crush opposition to land evictions in favor of private, business interests. It cited the killings of 14-year-old Broma villager Heng Chantha in May and environmental activist Chut Wutty in April as examples of the human toll of land grabs and illegal logging.
“The cumulative effect of land-grabbing has affected huge numbers of Cambodians,” Mr. Adams said.
In addition, the judicial system came under fire for bending to the will of Mr. Hun Sen’s government, both in terms of domestic cases and at the hybrid, U.N.-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal.
The report said the case of former Bavet Governor Chhouk Bundith, who is accused of shooting into a crowd of garment workers but has so far has escaped prosecution, was in keeping with a tradition of letting those with power escape justice.
Such impunity also extends to crimes during the Pol Pot regime, the report said.
“Cambodian judicial officers working at the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) continued to implement Hun Sen’s pronouncements by refusing to investigate additional Khmer Rouge suspects, including CPP-linked perpetrators from Pol Pot’s 1975 to 1979 Khmer Rouge regime,” the report said.
The courts also came down hard on radio station owner Mam Sonando, putting him behind bars for 20 years for allegedly fomenting a rural secessionist movement—a charge he vigorously denies, and one that rights groups say had no basis.
The report also said that Cambodia’s role as the chair of Asean, which is a rotating position, was “disastrous,” because of a failure to issue a joint statement in the wake of the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting—a first in the history of the regional bloc.
“Cambodia’s government played a leading role in blocking efforts by regional civil society organizations to adopt a credible and effective human rights mechanism,” Human Rights Watch added.
A failure to shutter detention centers for drug addicts—considered places of abuse that are detrimental to the well-being of those they are supposed to help—was yet another example of advice by the international community on such issues being flouted, the group added.
“In December 2011, revisions to Cambodia’s drug law enabled drug users to be detained for compulsory “treatment” for up to two years. Despite a March 2012 call by 12 U.N. agencies to close the detention centers, various government agencies, including security forces, continued to operate 10 centers across the country.
“Former detainees reported that they had been held without due process, subjected to exhausting military exercises, and ill-treated and even tortured by staff,” the report says.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the criticisms as merely issues that have been “the same, repeated again and again.”
“We solve problems according to the rule of law,” Mr. Siphan said.
“[Human Rights Watch] are away from Cambodia, and they don’t have enough abilities to do research.”