Pressure Mounts on Rights Defenders, Group Says

With a staff member jailed Monday for subversive activities, the human rights organization Licadho claimed in a report to be released today that the environment for human rights defenders had in the last three years continued a downward spiral.

The group said that since 2007, authorities had continued to deal harshly with those who stand up for human rights. Cambodian courts are used to threatening and detaining human rights workers and restricting their freedoms of assembly and expression, according to Licadho.

“In 2008 and 2009 representatives of communities engaged in land disputes were threatened with violence, spurious legal action or imprisonment; trade union leaders were assaulted and arrested and persecuted for legitimate trade union activity; and journalists and human rights workers at NGOs were threatened, arrested and obstructed in carrying out their work,” the report said.

“The Cambodian government continues to pursue repressive tactics, terrorizing human rights defenders and undermining their ability to defend peacefully the rights of others,” according to the report.

Government officials yesterday denied the report’s findings that the government had increasingly sought to curb freedoms or take legal action against human rights defenders.

Mak Sambath, deputy president of the government’s human rights committee, said freedom of expression was guaranteed in Cambodia, as long as people did not express opinions that amounted to defamation or spreading disinformation.

“Freedom of expression has limits,” he said.

“The Cambodian government did not restrict freedom of expression, but sometimes [rights defenders] express opinions that defame and spread disinformation that affects others.”

Mr Sambath denied the court system was used against rights defenders. “The courts have never acted under command from others…. The court [system] is separated from other powers,” he said.

He said the expansive civil society sector as well as available media was evidence of the freedoms the government allowed.

The Licadho report documented 66 serious abuses against people defending human rights in the past two years, while 60 rights defenders were still in detention by mid-July this year, Licadho said in a statement yesterday.

Several trends emerged from these right violations, Licadho noted, such as “the intensified use of the courts as a weapon to prevent legitimate and lawful activities of human rights defenders.”

Licadho said it had also observed an increased use of defamation and disinformation laws to restrict freedom of expression, adding that lawsuits against journalists, politicians and rights defenders have “surged since 2007.”

In 2009 alone, the group counted 25 complaints against journalists under these laws.

Licadho said restrictions on freedom of association and assembly were on the rise.

“[P]eaceful protests, demonstrations, strikes and marches were forcibly disrupted or denied in 2008 and 2009,” the report said.

Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek said yesterday that so far in 2010 Licadho had received no indication the human rights situation had improved.

“[U]p to now the number of cases received doesn’t seems to decrease. From January to April 2010, 20 [human rights defenders] have been jailed. It seems fair to say that the situation has at least continued on the same path,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said yesterday he was unimpressed by Licadho’s assessment of the government’s rights record.

“It is their characteristic, they never support the government,” he said.

Lt Gen Sopheak denied that the human rights situation had deteriorated. “The human rights situation in Cambodia is getting better every day,” he said. “Licadho says there’s restriction of freedoms…but [publication of] their report already shows their freedom.”

 

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