When a sex scandal involving then-deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha broke in March last year, it led within weeks to the jailing of five of Cambodia’s foremost current and former rights advocates on bribery-related charges.
In the months that followed, as the group dubbed the Adhoc 5 languished in detention without trial, a pall settled over the country’s rights defenders, observers say. Some started to watch their words, while others retreated from public life. They feared for their safety.
It only got worse after political analyst Kem Ley was killed in July, murdered in the midst of releasing a series of old parables about modern life that those in power may have seen as threatening.
“The detention of the five and the subsequent killing of Kem Ley have had a chilling effect on civil society,” Adhoc president Thun Saray said in an email from Canada, where he has been living for months. “The consequence was an emergence of a culture of self-censorship, to which also ADHOC submitted.”
The four Adhoc employees and a former staffer who was serving on the National Election Committee were arrested a year ago today. Charged with bribing Mr. Sokha’s alleged mistress to deny an affair, the suspects—whose detention was extended on Thursday for another six months—said they were offering her money for legal assistance.
Part of a sprawling legal assault that led to Mr. Sokha being holed up in the CNRP headquarters for half of last year, the case was widely derided as a politically motivated attempt by the government to neutralize the rights group and send a message to dissenters.
One year on, Adhoc staff, civil society and analysts said that the message was received—loud and clear.
At Adhoc, orders were immediately given to cease publishing news statements, speaking to the media and releasing advocacy statements. The NGO made a conscious decision to step away from the limelight in the hope it would help the case against Adhoc’s head of monitoring, Ny Sokha, his deputies Nay Vanda and Yi Soksan, and senior investigator Lim Mony, Mr. Saray said.
“ADHOC completely disappeared from the public eye, in hope that this positively impacted the development of the case,” said Mr. Saray, who himself failed to appear in court for questioning in October over the case against his four employees.
The fear from the top of the organization trickled down to the provincial level, with authorities regularly blocking or monitoring workshops with local residents, two coordinators said.
“When my senior people were arrested, I already knew that someday I would face such a problem,” said Lor Chann, Adhoc’s coordinator for Preah Vihear province. “I’m not worried about my safety because what I’m doing is to work for the sake of society.”
Srey Naren, coordinator for Oddar Meanchey province, said he had been taking further precautions and been careful about his words since the arrests.
“Following their arrests, we are more cautious with what we are doing,” he said.
“It’s sometimes hard for me to work with local authorities, especially when I ask them if I can hold a training session for local communities related to their rights,” he said. “Some officials take part in the workshop to ensure that I do not get involved with politics.”
The legal attack on Adhoc has spread fear among the country’s other main advocacy groups, with officers from Licadho and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) both admitting that they have been taking extra precautions.
“After the arrests, we are highly cautious when we are doing our work. We have to study the case thoroughly before we jump on any case,” said Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for Licadho. Monitors “are fulfilling their duty, but instead they are accused of committing the crimes.”
Mr. Sam Ath became the latest rights monitor to be targeted by the courts in February when he was summoned for questioning—as a suspect—after being beaten by members of Phnom Penh’s notoriously violent Daun Penh district security guards during a peaceful protest for World Habitat Day in October.
“I was attacked and sued at the court, but I have to work for society,” Mr. Sam Ath said. “We are a little bit worried, but we have to fulfill our duty. We have to struggle for the sake of the people. We are working to defend human rights, but we are accused of being against them.”
CCHR director Chak Sopheap also said there was “little doubt” that the widespread judicial harassment of human rights advocates had resulted in a “chilling effect” on some critical voices. But, she countered, it also led to increasing solidarity among rights groups.
The Adhoc 5 were charged with bribery, accused of trying to persuade the alleged mistress of Kem Sokha, now CNRP’s president, to deny an affair. They claim they were simply providing legal services to a witness in a case—a common practice among rights groups.
The nature of the case would likely affect those offering similar services in the future, said Run Saray, executive director of Legal Aid of Cambodia.
“When sometimes, like in the Adhoc case, the support is considered bribery, maybe it’s very difficult for the organizations that work with [domestic violence or trafficking] survivors or other witnesses,” Run Saray said.
“We help them make a legal complaint at the court, provide financial support to the witness, and later they change their mind and say, ‘I did this because the organization gave me money,’” he said. “It’s very hard to implement the project to support the victims or survivors or witnesses.”
Political analyst Cham Bunthet said he believed the Adhoc case was a calculated effort on behalf of the government to cow critics and create a split between rights groups and the opposition CNRP.
“The motivation of the arrests was, one, to silence the human rights activists who keep criticizing the government. Two, to make Kem Sokha’s sex scandal looks even worse—immoralize the opposition leader and distance the CNRP from civil society groups. Three, [create] political hostages for the upcoming negotiations after the election,” Mr. Bunthet said in an email.
Human Rights Watch also criticized the government’s legal case on Thursday, characterizing it as a cynical effort by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to silence its critics.
“Cambodia’s courts have once again done the bidding of Hun Sen’s government to suppress civil society,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a statement.
“No one should mistake these prosecutions for anything other than Hun Sen’s effort to undo decades of work by courageous Cambodian human rights defenders to promote rights and democracy in their country,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan reiterated that the judiciary was independent of the government and the case was not an attack on Adhoc or civil society.
“The judge needs to find out if they abused the law. It’s nothing to do with Adhoc and nothing to do with other organizations because the courts, they have their own due process,” he said.
Mr. Siphan said NGOs were free to criticize the government, as long as they do not overstep the line.
“For myself, as well as the government, you are free to criticize. Like the newspapers, as well as citizens on Facebook, can criticize the prime minister and the government to raise the issue. There’s nothing wrong with that. We welcome criticism if partnered with the government,” he said.
“But we do not accept harassment of the government because the government serves the people. They have no right to harass. They have no right to threaten. We must respect each other.”
In Preah Vihear, however, Mr. Chann had little doubt that the case against his co-workers was a clear case of retaliation against Adhoc’s efforts to uncover government rights abuses.
“I think that they are not happy because my work affects their interests,” he said. “I know that I am the bone lodged in their throats.”
(Additional reporting by Matt Surrusco)