Justice Ministry officials have warned human rights group Licadho that its new webpage documenting Cambodia’s “political prisoners” could be in contravention of the NGO law, arguing that the page violates a provision requiring political neutrality.
On Tuesday, Licadho launched a special section on its website giving a comprehensive breakdown of 29 criminal cases the organization deems to be politically motivated.
Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap slammed the page in a Facebook post the following day, calling on the rights group to “review” two articles in the much-criticized Law on Associations and Non-Government Organizations, better known as the NGO law.
“Licadho is walking away from its professionalism and its statute,” Mr. Santepheap wrote.
“I want to inform public opinion that Cambodia does not have political prisoners at all. In all prisons and correctional centers throughout Cambodia, there are only inmates jailed over criminal offenses,” he continued.
“Licadho, please review the Law on Associations and Non-Government Organizations, especially articles 24 and 30. Please maintain your stance and practice your profession on behalf of your NGO.”
Article 24 of the law states that both domestic and foreign NGOs should “maintain their neutrality towards political parties.”
Article 30 stipulates that if an organization fails to comply with certain articles in the law, including Article 24, the Interior Ministry will issue a written warning giving it 30 working days to comply. If the NGO still fails to comply, it can face suspension or have its registration revoked.
Mr. Santepheap could not be reached for comment.
However, Chin Malin, another spokesman for the ministry, confirmed that Licadho could face serious consequences if its “Political Prisoners” page were deemed to be violating the law.
“If we find elements of offenses, Licadho could be faced with two things. First, the NGO law…can suspend activities or shut it down, and second, they will have to respond to any criminal offenses,” Mr. Malin said.
“We are not angry, but we cannot accept this report that is opposite to the real situation in a social democratic country,” he said.
“In a social democracy…there [are] no political prisoners. There are only politicians and NGOs who commit criminal offenses,” he said.
“Political prisoners are for communist regimes.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to comment on whether an official warning would be issued to Licadho, or whether it would be told to remove the section from its website, but delivered a veiled warning to the group.
“Licadho post[ed] the so-called ‘political prisoners.’ I don’t agree with that because in Cambodia we don’t have the law to prosecute the political,” Gen. Sopheak said.
“I don’t agree with Licadho. More or less, they are counter to their statute. I think that the news story to be issued tomorrow by The Daily should send a message to them,” he said.
Licadho director Naly Pilorge defended the webpage and said the group intended to keep it online despite the government’s warnings.
“The graph is a compilation of legal facts which had already been published in the public domain during the past few years. As for using the term ‘political prisoners,’ our short introduction on the graph is self explanatory and this term is evident in describing this group of prisoners, most of them not having been tried in any court yet,” Ms. Pilorge said in an email.
“Unless we have made a spelling or factual error, we intend to keep the graph of political prisoners and other documents on our web site to keep the public and other stakeholders informed including the families of the political prisoners listed.”