The U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia on Tuesday joined a group of local NGOs in criticizing a spate of recent arrests of activists, monks and opposition figures.
Ten female land rights activists, three Buddhist monks and two opposition CNRP figures were all arrested last week. Of the 15, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has already convicted 11 of them in two snap trials, sentencing them each to a year in jail.
U.N. envoy Surya Subedi on Tuesday urged the government to respect the law while calling on the country’s courts to exercise their authority independent of outside influences.
“It saddens me to see the courts being used again and again as a tool of the executive,” he said in a statement. “The lack of judicial independence is one of the central obstacles to achieving the just, inclusive society that Cambodians strive for.”
“Those who seek to exercise fundamental freedoms can be arrested, charged and convicted, on little or no material grounds. For such cases, justice in the heavily backlogged judicial system can be remarkably swift,” Mr. Subedi added.
Six NGOs also held a press conference Tuesday to condemn the arrests, calling the government’s crackdown on its critics a serious human rights violation.
Latt Khy, who heads the land and livelihoods program for rights group Adhoc, said the courts were clearly under political pressure as the charges brought against the activists were “baseless.”
“We, the civil society groups, believe all the people arrested, convicted, and imprisoned did not commit wrongdoing as charged,” he said.
Son Chum Chuon, program director for the Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association, said the forced defrocking and imprisonment of three ethnic Khmer Krom monks was a violation of Buddhist principles and had left many Khmer Krom activists fearful of joining any more protests.
“The arrest and detention of the three Khmer Krom monks is a move to crack down on activists to prevent them from participating in social work,” he said.
The Khmer Krom hail from what is present-day southern Vietnam. Many of those living in Cambodia feel colonial France unjustly ceded the area to Vietnam and advocate for its return to Cambodia.
Suon Bunsak, executive director of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said the groups would seek a meeting with lawmakers from the National Assembly’s human rights commission to push for the immediate release of those jailed last week.
On Tuesday morning, about 200 supporters of those arrested marched to 15 embassies to bring attention to their plight. They submitted petitions to the U.S. Embassy, the European Union delegation and offices of the U.N. asking them to put pressure on the Cambodian government to release the group.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)