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Free speech in a slide: Adhoc

FREEDOM of expression took a turn for the worse in 2009, as critics and rights activists were regularly prosecuted for speaking out against the government, according a new report released by the local rights group Adhoc.

Adhoc president Thun Saray said the year saw at least 22 legal complaints filed by government officials against dissident politicians and civil society groups, as well as an additional 25 complaints against journalists – figures that parallel a similar crackdown in 2005.

“If we compare 2009 to 2008, freedom of expression has contracted because of government restrictions,” he said during the launch of the group’s annual report on Thursday.

“The right to freedom of expression gets better when elections are approaching, but there is a tendency for it to restrict after the election passes.”

The report indicates that threats against human rights defenders have been a major and continuing concern over the past three years. There were 164 legal prosecutions against human rights defenders in 2008, but in 2009, 235 activists – mostly involved with land rights issues – faced charges, and 147 were arrested. Of those, 89 were granted bail and 58 remained in custody. The remaining 88 have managed to elude questionable arrest warrants.

The report also states that rapes of women and children showed no sign of decreasing in 2009. A greater proportion of reported rapes in 2009 involved underage victims, with 78.2 percent under 18 years of age, compared with 67 percent in 2008. Out of the 460 cases received by Adhoc, 66 were mediated at local police stations and concluded with the informal payment of compensation, meaning no criminal charges were brought.

Despite a drop in the number of land seizures last year, the report added that a greater number of civilians were arrested and prosecuted in relation to land disputes compared with the previous year.

It added that many people have lost confidence in conflict-resolution mechanisms at the local level, which has forced an increased number to take their grievances to the national level.

However, the report states, national authorities “lack the attention and willingness to provide justifiable solutions to these conflicts, leaving these citizens with no further avenue for redress”.

“The authorities should recognise the people’s rights to housing,” Thun Saray said.

“They want to live in the town even if they have a narrow space because they can have jobs to support their families. The authorities should care about the poor people, too, and not just relocate people from the town to make the city clean for tycoons’ eyes.”

Cheam Yeap, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said Adhoc had the right to report what it wanted, but argued that the proliferation of “TVs, radios, magazines, newspapers and NGOs” had increased the flow of information in the Kingdom. “People have freedom of expression, but they should not intrude on other people’s rights,” he said.

Regarding land evictions, he said authorities always talked to residents about the nature of the developments well in advance and provided fair compensation in the form of money, land or housing.

Om Yentieng, the chairman of the government’s Human Rights Committee, could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

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