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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Detentions ‘arbitrary’: UN

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Ny Sokha (centre left) and Yi Soksan (centre right), are escorted to a hearing at the Phnom Penh Appeal Court in November. Heng Chivoan

Detentions ‘arbitrary’: UN

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) has called for the immediate release of five human rights workers jailed since late April.

Made public over the weekend, the working group’s legal opinion on the imprisonment of the “Adhoc 5” finds that their detention to be in violation of international human, political and civil rights conventions to which the Cambodian government is a signatory.

“Taking into account all the circumstances of the case, the Working Group considers that the adequate remedy would be to release the above named five individuals immediately,” the report reads.

The five – current Adhoc staffers Lim Mony, Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, and their former colleague Ny Chakrya, now deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee – have been detained since April when they were taken in for questioning and later charged over the alleged bribing of opposition leader Kem Sokha’s purported mistress.

The opinion flags concerns over the questioning of the five in April by the Anti-Corruption Unit without legal representation; the court’s classification of the $204 they gave Sokha’s mistress, Khom Chandaraty, for legal assistance as a bribe; and their continued detention, which was extended for six more months in November.

The report also touches on the concerted effort by the government and its institutions to target Adhoc as an organisation, pointing to calls made by pro-government NGOs and the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee in the wake of the staffers’ arrests for country’s NGO law to be used against the rights group.

In a statement given to the Post over the weekend, Adhoc said: “This decision could not come at a better time. ADHOC hopes that it will lead to the immediate and unconditional release of the five HRDs [human rights defenders].”

Last weekend, Adhoc also issued a joint statement welcoming the decision alongside rights group Licadho, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), the International Federation for Human Rights and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights.

It described the cases against the five as “illustrative of the Cambodian Government’s deliberate effort to eliminate all dissenting voices”.

The statement also hailed the opinion as the first time a UN mechanism receiving individual complaints had implied human rights defenders are a protected group under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights’ discrimination provisions, classifying the Adhoc 5’s imprisonment as a form of discrimination.

CCHR director Chak Sopheap described the working group’s opinion as a “groundbreaking finding by the world’s leading authority on arbitrary detention”, which would see human rights defenders the world over now covered by the covenant’s discrimination provisions.

However, a person familiar with the working group’s legal opinion said that while the decision itself was an important validation of the work of NGOs advocating on behalf of Adhoc, its discrimination declaration was not in itself revolutionary, nor was it legally binding on either the Cambodian government or within international law.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin brushed aside the group’s findings on Friday.

“They are giving a judgment instead of the court, which is not acceptable in a country with rule of law,” Malin said. “The fact is that the courts have investigated the case with enough evidence, witnesses, and found that the five people have bad intentions to commit a crime.”

The five could possibly be released sometime this month after a political deal was struck by Sokha, Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng. The deal has already seen the release of an opposition commune chief, who was released a week after Sokha’s five-month sentence for skipping court was pardoned in early December.

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