Government Rights Chief Calls Beating Threats ‘Education’

The government’s human rights chief, following a meeting on Tuesday with the U.N.’s visiting human rights envoy, defended as “education” the violent threats officials have been making against would-be protesters in recent months.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and other top government officials made several violent threats against those thinking about demonstrating in the lead-up to June’s commune elections and have carried on with the tough talk with an eye toward the national vote next July. Last week, Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth, relaying comments from the premier to a group of civil servants, warned protesters that “your heads will be hit by the bottom of bamboo sticks.”

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UN special rapporteur Rhona Smith attends a meeting with Cambodian Human Rights Committee chairman Keo Remy in Phnom Penh on Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Keo Remy, who chairs the government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee, defended the belligerent language after his closed-door morning meeting with Rhona Smith, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia.

“The most important point wasn’t the threat, but it was a legal education,” he said. “The words they used created an image that caused a reaction in the human rights field, but the character of the individuals or ministers who used them is gentle.”

Ms. Smith “acknowledged that gentle character, even though the use of words should not cause fear or concern,” he said. “We acknowledge that the human rights concerns of Ms. Rhona Smith, who works in the human rights field, are common.”

In her own post-meeting news conference with reporters, Ms. Smith offered a different take on her talk with Mr. Remy, saying the chairman conceded that the language officials were using was unhelpful. She also said that he raised the issue of his own accord.

“His Excellency raised that himself with me,” the envoy said. “I did raise my concerns with that and with the rhetoric, and His Excellency agreed that it was problematic and wasn’t helpful for the elections.”

However, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin, who served as Mr. Remy’s translator in the meeting and was contacted for comment afterward, said it was Ms. Smith who broached the topic.

“Ms. Rhona Smith raised the issue,” he said. “It is a small issue. We were talking about something else and that issue was brought up within those issues. It was not the main topic of the discussion.”

Mr. Malin said the meeting focused on freedom of expression and “democratic processes,” and referred additional questions to Human Rights Committee spokesman Katta On, who could not be reached.

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