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Cambodians testify in US

Witnesses attack government's human rights record at congressional hearing

HUMAN rights and freedom of expression are under grave threat in Cambodia today, a panel of Cambodian witnesses told representatives from the US Congress on Thursday at a hearing in Washington.

Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian Mu Sochua, Licadho rights group president Kek Galabru and Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) labour programme head Moeun Tola were invited to testify in front of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a congressional body that monitors human rights norms around the world. Copies of prepared remarks were obtained from all three by the Post.

Cambodian democracy is "experiencing an alarming free fall", Mu Sochua said, according to the testimony. Having refused to pay court-ordered compensation to Prime Minister Hun Sen in connection with her defamation conviction last month, Mu Sochua warned that she will be sent to prison in the absence of intervention by the US and other donor countries.

Moeun Tola's testimony focused on labour conditions in the Kingdom, which he said had deteriorated sharply in the last few years. He expressed concern for the security of union organisers in Cambodia, citing the murders of officials from the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia including Chea Vichea, Ros Sovannareth and Hy Vuthy. Moeun Tola also criticised Cambodia's lack of a minimum wage, and said that in the only industry with such a standard in place - the garment industry - wages are "insufficient, especially in light of rising costs of food, health problems related to work and other necessities".

He called for the US to institute duty-free status for Cambodian textiles and to urge the Cambodian government to fully implement the 1997 Labour Law.

Kek Galabru highlighted the status of land and housing rights in Cambodia, noting that more than 250,000 people have been victims of land-grabbing since 2003 in the 13 provinces in which Licadho operates.

"Cambodia's increasing landlessness is a recipe for future economic and social instability," she said.

She also cited recent threats to freedom of expression, outlining several of the nine criminal complaints the government has filed against members of media, opposition and civil society organisations since April of this year.

In view of these developments, the Licadho president said that her organisation "believes that the country is facing the gravest threat to its democratic development since the 1997" factional fighting.

Mu Sochua echoed these criticisms, calling for visa sanctions on officials suspected of corruption and a suspension of US aid to the Ministry of Defence until a regulatory framework is established for mineral and petroleum concessions.

Govt denies repression
On Wednesday, the Cambodian Embassy in Washington released a statement defending its government's record on human rights, though it did not mention the congressional hearing specifically.

"Like any democratic country in the world, Cambodia cannot [allow] the proliferation of voluntary public defamation and disinformation intended to create social disorder," the statement said.

Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, repeated his criticism that the hearing was "unfair" because no representatives of the Cambodian government were invited.

"The opposition groups have never said anything good about the government," he said Thursday. "Whenever there is good news, they ignore it."
Though all three witnesses called for specific reforms in US policy toward Cambodia, it is not clear whether the hearing will generate any substantive changes.

Chea Vannath, an independent analyst and the former executive director of the Centre for Social Development, noted that the commission has no legislative authority in Congress, only the ability to make recommendations.

"In the political structure of the United States, it takes more than a hearing to change policy," she said. Still, she added, such events are important because of their "indirect effects", and their capacity to raise awareness of rights issues.

"This is an international mechanism to promote the rule of law, democracy and international standards," she said.

"I am one of the thousands of innocent journalists, trade union leaders, teachers and villagers who are tried by a judicial system that is well known for corruption, for incompetence and for acting under the control of the government and those who have political influence and money.... As the direct result of widespread corruption in the courts, Cambodian families find themselves in debt as bribes must be paid to court officials and to judges just to have access to justice or to be free from legal persecution."
- Mu Sochua, SRP parliamentarian
"The Cambodian authorities regularly use violence or the threat of it to restrict workers' rights to peacefully protest over legitimate labour rights issues. Peaceful gatherings outside factories by striking workers have repeatedly been forcibly dispersed by armed police in recent years. In the process, strike leaders and workers have been injured and may be unlawfully arrested. Local government authorities routinely reject requests for unions to march and rally in public areas."
- Moeun Tola, head of labour programme unit, CLEC
"Cambodia is currently facing a crisis in human rights, which constitutes a backward slide in the country's democratisation and efforts to promote good governance. The international community, including the United States, made a significant contribution to bringing peace and the concept of democracy to Cambodia in the early 1990s. Sadly, the hard-won steps which have been made toward pluralistic democracy, and toward economic and social development, are now in danger."
- Kek Galabru, president of Licadho



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