The “free political space” for people to speak up or take lawful action against officials drastically shrank last year, according to a report by local rights group Adhoc
With the exception of 1997—the year of the CPP-Funcinpec factional fighting and the grenade attack in Phnom Penh—the margin for protest against the authorities may have been at its smallest since 1993, said the report on 2005, released on Friday.
The report noted a wave of legal action against activists and opposition officials, restraints on demonstrations and strikes, and an increasing number of land disputes.
“I was frightened much more [in 2005] than in previous years,” Adhoc President Thun Saray said at a press conference.
“Journalists and vendors at the market dared not to talk, [which was] something much different from previous years when they usually discussed political issues,” he added.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith on Sunday called the report exaggerated and ill-intentioned. “I don’t think 2005 was worse than ’93, ’94, ’95. Maybe they just need some money from donors,” he said. “They try to release the report before the [international donors’ Consultative Group] meeting,” he added. “They try to confuse everybody.”
The report stated that arrest warrants issued for government critics and the sentencing to 20 years in prison for Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun in August, found guilty of killing union leader Chea Vichea in January 2004, clearly illustrate the judiciary’s lack of independence. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s “iron fist” policy on court corruption is proving a double-edged sword, it added.
“On the positive side, the judges and prosecutors are scared to release criminal suspects from jail on receiving bribes, but a negative effect is that they are also scared to reject interference from the executive in high profile cases.”
Of 89 demonstrations and strikes related to land disputes, labor rights and other issues in 2005, at least 20 were “severely cracked down on” by officials, and at least 40 people arrested although later released, said the report.
The government continues to delay authorization for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to meet Montagnard asylum-seekers fleeing Vietnam, it stated. “[Cambodian] government authorities are still severely controlling the new arrivals by arresting them and sending them back to Vietnam,” the report said. Unprecedented deadly violence was committed by armed forces against the poor in land disputes, as in the March killings in Poipet’s Kbal Spean village, it said.
“No one from the authorities is ever found responsible for the killings…. On the contrary, more and more poor and powerless victims of land conflicts have been arrested,” said the report.
Killings within families were on the increase, with most of the victims being women, the report said. Gang rape also increased. Food security remains a concern, with at least five deaths from starvation reported in Kampot, Kandal and Kompong Speu provinces. On a positive note, the report said the donor community responded in a unified way to the arrests of activists.
“This ‘one voice’ response…could be used in the future to accelerate key reforms for the country,” the report noted, adding: “It is likely that the situation will continue to improve at least up until the general elections in 2008.”