As protesters were being arrested during peaceful demonstrations in Phnom Penh on Monday morning, the new chairman of the government’s human rights committee held a press conference to reassure the public that the country’s human rights situation was stable.
A group of NGOs organized a “Black Monday” protest, during which demonstrators wore black shirts, to call for the release of four officers from local rights group Adhoc and an election official who were jailed last week for their alleged involvement in bribing a mistress of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha to deny the affair.
Human rights groups both in Cambodia and around the world have blasted the government’s ever-expanding investigation into the sex scandal and resulting legal action as an effort to destroy the political opposition and silence critics.
However, Keo Remy, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers who became chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee this month, said nothing was amiss.
“For now, there are no surprises with human rights in Cambodia,” he said. “Even though they work under an NGO, there has been no violation of human rights.”
Mr. Remy, a former opposition politician who defected to the CPP eight years ago, explained that the charged human rights officers had been working outside their mandate when they became involved in defending Mr. Sokha’s alleged mistress, 25-year-old Khom Chandaraty.
“The arrest of the human rights workers is because they weren’t doing human rights jobs—they had to interfere personally,” he said.
“The Cambodian government has constitutional laws, but the human rights people understand how much before they have gone too far,” he added.
Adhoc has argued that their staff were simply providing standard legal services to a defendants who requested their help and that about $200 was given to Ms. Chandaraty to cover basic expenses related to the case.
Mr. Remy said the black-clad protesters should spend their time looking for evidence to help exculpate their jailed comrades rather than taking to the streets.
“They can try to find more evidence to prove to the court that they are not involved with the crime, but I see the campaign of black T-shirts has brought darkness to Cambodia,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, which had three staff members arrested and released on Monday, said that exposing the present darkness surrounding human rights in Cambodia was the point of the protest.
“We wear black T-shirts to bring attention to human rights workers facing restrictions and having their rights violated,” he said.
“From now into the future, if the government maintains restrictions using threats of arrest and political tension, the respect for human rights will be very low.”
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