We are alarmed by the escalating severity of the government’s crackdown on fundamental freedoms, which has seen HRDs targeted with threats, judicial harassment and even violence. HRDs play an essential role in holding those in power to account. Attacks on those who peacefully and legitimately carry out such work are unlawful, unacceptable, and must cease.
HRDs Mr. Ny Sokha, Mr. Yi Soksan, Mr. Nay Vanda, Ms. Lim Mony and Mr. Ny Chakrya (also known as the ‘Khmer Five’) have as of today spent 311 days in arbitrary detention in Phnom Penh . In November 2016 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (“UNWGAD”) concluded that they had been discriminated against on the basis of their status as human rights defenders and that this, along with violations of their right to a fair trial, renders their imprisonment arbitrary. The UNWGAD called on the Cambodian government to immediately release the five , yet more than three months later, they remain behind bars with the investigation into the politically motivated charges still ongoing .
On 23 February 2017, four of the five detaineesappeared before the Court of Appeal to challenge their continued detention. For the sixth time, their release on bail was denied. Furthermore, on 27 February 2017, all five were scheduled to appear before the Supreme Court in a public hearing to challenge a decision made last year to extend their pre-trial detention for a further six months . However, the necessary order summoning the detainees to the court was not sent to any of the three different prisons where the five are being held, with the result that the hearing has been postponed .
Last week also saw long-time land rights activist and HRD Ms. Tep Vanny convicted of ‘intentional violence with aggravated circumstances’ in a case dating back to 2013. The conviction came after over five months of pre-trial detention on a baseless charge that was suddenly reactivated following Ms. Tep Vanny’s arrest in August 2016 while protesting for the release of the Khmer Five. In a clear attempt to silence one of the Cambodian authorities’ most fearless and outspoken critics, Ms. Tep Vanny was sentenced to two years and six months’ imprisonment, as well as a series of fines and compensation payments amounting to the equivalent of $2250 USD. A group of Ms. Tep Vanny’s supporters, who had peacefully gathered outside the court building, were also violently dispersed by police and security forces, leaving some in need of hospital treatment . These events follow on the heels of a September 2016 conviction of Ms. Tep Vanny and three other activists, on charges also reactivated in August 2016, for ‘obstruction of a public official with aggravating circumstances’ and ‘insult of a public official’ in relation to a 2011 protest, despite a lack of any credible evidence. The six-month sentence has been upheld on appeal but is yet to be enforced.
These developments have occurred in an increasingly hostile environment for human rights inCambodia. In the last month alone, two human rights monitors were summoned for questioning under suspicion of committing ‘intentional violence’ during a protest at which they were victims of beatings by security guards . A human rights NGO was also publicly threatened with legal action in relation to their publication of research highlighting child labor and debt bondage in brick factories . In a further backlash against legitimate advocacy, 48 NGOs were threatened with legal action for ‘putting pressure on the court’ – a criminal offense that appears uniquely reserved for those critical of government - following their criticism of the conviction of three environmental activists  .
In addition, the characterisation of any form of protest as ‘color revolutions’ by leading government figures appears to be an attempt to delegitimize any form of peaceful protest and pre-emptively justify disproportionate and violent crackdowns on demonstrations . We are seriously concerned that such rhetoric may lead to an increasingly dangerous situation both for human rights defenders and for all individuals who wish to exercise their fundamental rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly, and associationthroughout the election period.
These attacks on HRDs are in violation of Cambodia’s legally binding obligations under international human rights law. Additionally, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders  explicitly restates the internationally-guaranteed right of all individuals to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the duty of each state to take all necessary measures to protect individuals against any violence, threats, retaliation, discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of their legitimate exercise of this right.
The United Nations Human Rights Council is currently holding its 34 th session in Geneva: the international community - in particular signatories to the Paris Peace Agreements who undertook to “promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” – must join us in publicly condemning these violations and urge the Cambodian authorities to comply with international law.
We call on the Cambodian authorities to cease their unlawful attacks on HRDs and immediately release all those detained as a result of the legitimate exercise of their fundamental freedoms.