Although two rights workers were cleared of criminal charges this week, the government has sent a clear message to rights workers they are not immune to being arrested while doing their jobs, experts said Thursday.
While human rights and legal observers commended the courts and celebrated the outcome Wednesday, they cautioned against feeling a false sense of security from the judge’s decision.
“We have no security,” Licadho President Kek Galabru said Thursday. “We will continue to work, but we are going to be much more cautious.”
Rights workers will have to either monitor demonstrations from too far away to be effective or team up with staffers from fellow human rights organizations to provide protection and potential witnesses should another arrest occur, Kek Galabru added.
A Sihanoukville judge dismissed charges of inciting violence and organizing an illegal demonstration against Licadho workers Kim Sen and Meas Minear on Wednesday. Judge Tak Kimsia’s ruling came seven months after the two were arrested in connection with violent protests that erupted after 3,000 tons of toxic waste were discovered in the seaside town.
One Western rights expert said Thursday the considerable international attention to the Licadho case and support for Kim Sen and Meas Minear may inspire local rights workers to be more vigilant in their jobs.
But experts here maintain there is no reason to believe other rights workers won’t be subject to similar ordeals.
Kim Sen and Meas Minear were arrested in December 1998 and are considered the first rights workers to have been charged with a crime in Cambodia while on the job. The two have maintained they simply were monitoring the demonstrations.
Licadho and other rights groups have said the two, who spent 32 days in jail, were arrested without a warrant. Moreover, the charges against Kim Sen, Meas Minear and eight others arrested in connection with the December demonstrations were unclear throughout the seven-month ordeal, even during the three-day trial, they complained.
“Amnesty International hopes that in the future human rights defenders in Cambodia will be able to go about their legitimate work without fear of wrongful arrest and prosecution. The ordeal which Kim Sen and Meas Minear have been through must not happen again,” the US-based organization said in a statement Thursday.
Human Rights Watch, also based in the US, commended the court’s decision to dismiss the charges against the two Licadho workers, suggesting the outcome of the case may improve conditions for rights workers.
“We welcome this verdict and hope this means that Cambodian NGOs will no longer be subject to official harassment,” Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of the Asia Division, said.
But for the time being, local and international human rights groups in Cambodia are not taking chances. “When we go to monitor events such as demonstrations, two or three [human rights] NGOs will go together,” Kek Galabru said.
Chan Soveth, an investigator with Adhoc, added: “After this nightmare event, we have to be more careful and regularly have discussions first with other [human rights] NGOs before we work at any [events.]”
Another human rights activist in Phnom Penh underscored that this commitment to work together is a good idea to avoid future arrests.
because “human rights workers are not immune [to being arrested again.]”
However, he called the seven-month ordeal a lesson to both government officials and rights workers.
“The authorities have learned that they cannot arrest people without a warrant. [The arrest] must be according to procedure, not according to someone’s wishes,” he said.
Rights workers, on the other hand, have learned that they have to be “very cautious [and] approach everything with serious consideration,” the activist added.