Crimewatch Makes Rights Groups Wary

Pointing to the prevalence of mob violence in Cambodia, a coalition of rights organizations has criticized a citizen’s crime-watch organization set up last year under government and municipal directives.

In a statement last week, the 16-member Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee warn­ed that the so-called people’s protection groups could undermine human rights by encouraging already widespread vigilantism.

Some government officials have characterized the citizen’s groups, which were created last year under directives issued by the Ministry of Interior and Phnom Penh municipal government, as similar to US neighborhood watch groups.

But the committee’s March 3 statement warned “giving the group the right to protect security and public order is contrary to the Constitution and will encourage violence and cause deaths.”

Chan Soveth, an investigator with the rights NGO Adhoc, said Tuesday that the neighborhood groups might send the wrong message to average citizens, who often distrust the legal authorities and are inclined to take justice into their own hands.

“In one case we documented, the authorities arrested the [suspects] and placed them in detention,” he said. “Then, angry citizens went to the detention center to kill the [suspect]. The authorities permitted the use of knives and clubs, but not guns.”

He noted at least six cases of mob killings, involving 12 deaths, since directives were issued last June. In a high profile incident last year, two suspected thieves were beaten to death at Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum .

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak acknowledged the right of the committee to criticize the government directive, but insisted that these objections would not prompt the ministry to scrap the neighborhood watch groups: “What we are doing is not a violation of human rights but [a move] to enable the public to protect itself against crime, especially theft.”

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