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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A Report on human rights during the year 2000 in Cambodia

A Report on human rights during the year 2000 in Cambodia

Labor disputes at a garment factory resulted in clashes in June. An injured protester, above, is taken for medical treatment by Police


uman Rights Watch, a US based organization that monitors human rights abuses around

the globe, relaeased the following report as an overview of the last year.

During the year 2000 Cambodian human rights workers increasingly came under fire,

with those who engaged in high-profile advocacy or investigations facing threats

of prosecution or physical harm, as well as government-sponsored attacks in the Cambodian


The year also saw the most serious outbreak of violence in Phnom Penh since the 1997

coup, followed by widespread arrests of alleged terrorists throughout the countryside.

Human rights workers expressed concerns that the government's response to the November

24 attack in Phnom Penh - attributed to an obscure group known as the Cambodian Freedom

Fighters - could be used as a ploy to a arrest and harass opposition figures.

After more than two years of negotiations, Cambodia and the United Nations tentatively

reached agreement in July to establish a national tribunal with international participation

to bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to justice for genocide, crimes against humanity,

and war crimes committed between April 1975 and January 1979. The government was

slow, however, in forwarding the law to the National Assembly for debate, casting

doubt on the leadership's resolve to actually bring former Khmer Rouge leaders to


Serious human rights violations continued during the year, including political killings

and torture, attacks on opposition leaders, human trafficking, substandard prison

conditions, and violations associated with labor and land conflicts.

Ongoing Impunity

Cambodia and the U.N. reached agreement on the Khmer Rouge tribunal in July, after

a series of negotiating sessions in Phnom Penh, New York, and Havana. As a compromise

to a fully international tribunal, the U.N. agreed that the tribunal would be located

in Cambodia, as a three-tiered special chamber within the Cambodian court system,

consisting of a majority of Cambodian judges and a minority of foreign judges.

All judges were to be appointed by the Cambodian Supreme Council of Magistracy (SCM),

which is dominated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), although the U.N.

Secretary-General was to put forward a list of foreign jurists as nominees for consideration

by the SCM.

Previous stumbling blocks, such as who would control prosecutions, were resolved

through a concession brokered by the United States, in which co-prosecutors - one

Cambodian and one nominated by the U.N. - would issue indictments. Any differences

between co-prosecutors would be resolved through a pretrial chamber composed of Cambodian

and foreign judges, with decisions to block indictments requiring the consent of

a majority of the judges plus at least one foreign judge.

The plan was criticized by Cambodian and international human rights organizations.

They said it set an international precedent by watering down standards of judicial

independence and creating a politically charged indictment process.

Official impunity remained a major problem. Virtually none of the perpetrators of

hundreds of politically-motivated extrajudicial killings, incidents of torture, and

other abuses committed before and after the 1997 coup and 1998 elections were brought

to justice during the year. According to the U.N. special representative for human

rights in Cambodia, as of April 2000 the government had investigated only nine of

these cases, leading to the trial and imprisonment of three culprits.

An emerging trend was for victims of rape or physical assault committed by government

agents to be pressured to settle cases out of court, with the encouragement of local

officials, police and/or court staff.

Commune-level elections, which had been repeatedly postponed since the 1993 national

elections, were not expected to be held until 2002 at the earliest. In order to reduce

political violence, Cambodia's independent nongovernmental election monitoring coalitions

advocated passage of a Commune Election law requiring candidates to run on an individual

basis and not as political party members. They also called for the dismantling of

commune militia, which were reportedly used during previous elections to carry out

violence and intimidation of opposition supporters.

Political Violence

Numerous incidents of violence took place against local commune leaders, mostly

directed at members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). These included the

February 10 slaying of SRP member Chim Chhuon in Kompong Cham, for which a commune

militiaman was later arrested; the June 3 killing of Prak Chhien, commune candidate

for the royalist Funcinpec party in Kampot, for which the incumbent commune chief

was later arrested; and the August 17 murder of Khhim Nhak, an SRP commune council

member in Kompong Cham, for which the commune's deputy police chief was subsequently

arrested. Other SRP commune candidates in Kompong Cham, Kampot, and Prey Veng were

also threatened or attacked during the year.

While rights workers concluded that most of these incidents were motivated at least

in part by local political rivalries or the victim's role in publicizing local abuses

of power, government officials insisted that the violence reflected nothing more

than personal disputes. The effect, however, was clear: the attacks conveyed the

message that involvement in politics could be life threatening.

Further harassment of the SRP occurred in May, when mobs attacked the SRP headquarters

in Phnom Penh and destroyed a memorial erected by the party in front of the National


In March, two SRP members, Mong Davuth and Kong Bun Heang, who had been arrested

in September 1999 for an alleged 1998 assassination attempt against Prime Minister

Hun Sen, were released from prison for lack of evidence. The judge said that both

men remained suspects in the case and could be re-arrested at any time.

In December 1999, another SRP member, Sok Yoeun, who had fled the country after also

being named as a suspect in the alleged assassination attempt, was arrested in Thailand.

He was charged with illegal entry and sentenced to six months in prison there. Cambodia

sought his extradition to face criminal charges but at this writing Sok Yoeun, having

completed his sentence, was still in a Thai prison pending an extradition hearing.

In October, a uniformed soldier threatened to shoot SRP parliamentarian Cheam Channy

during a standoff on a Phnom Penh street that lasted more than an hour. Police at

the scene did not intervene, despite requests from U.N. human rights workers, who

were eventually able to get the parliamentarian to safety.

Non-partisan organizations carrying out voter education were also harassed. In August,

provincial authorities in Kampot threatened to arrest members of the Committee for

Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), an election monitoring group, for allegedly inciting

civil unrest by advocating that candidates run as independents rather than as party

members. After intervention by Comfrel's Phnom Penh office and the Ministry of Interior,

the charges were dropped.

In September, a district chief in Kampot ordered police officers to close a Comfrel

meeting being held in a pagoda, allegedly because the organization lacked written

permission from the governor to convene the meeting.

In August, rights workers received reports that alleged members of the Khmer Serey

(Free Khmer Movement, or FKM), a group accused of plotting to overthrow the government,

had been extrajudicially executed or "disappeared" by government forces.

As many as thirty men were reportedly taken to a military base in Kratie province

in April after having supposedly defected to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

It was unclear how many of them were members of the FKM; some, apparently, were tricked

into claiming to be members by promises that they would receive U.S. $150 a month

if they defected.

Three of the leaders of the group were later executed. When their bodies were found,

they were blindfolded and had their arms tied behind their backs. Others were reported

missing and were believed "disappeared." RCAF Deputy Commander Meas Sophea

stated that at least seven men were killed in a gun battle with government forces

in Kratie in May but alleged that they were all bandits.

In another incident linked to alleged terrorists, on November 24, an estimated forty

to fifty men launched armed attacks in Phnom Penh near the Ministry of National Defense,

the Council of Ministers building, and Division E-70 military base on the western

edge of the capital. Eight people were reportedly killed and fourteen wounded.

The attack was attributed to forces of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), or Kongtoap

Serey Cheat Kampuchea, a group reportedly led by Cambodian-American Chhun Yasith.

Following the violence, more than 200 people were arrested across Cambodia, most

without a warrant as required by law. Many of those arrested or detained were affiliated

with the Royalist Funcinpec Party or the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Rights

workers expressed concerns that the November 24 incident might be used as a pretext

to move against political opponents.

Civilian mobs committed vigilante-style killings of suspected thieves, in some cases,

with the apparent collusion of the police.

On at least six occasions during the year, suspects held in police custody were seized

by, or handed over to, angry mobs and beaten to death. Between January and May, there

were at least fourteen reported cases of mob violence against alleged criminals,

in which ten people were killed.

Law enforcement officers also made use of lethal force against criminal suspects.

In one incident on August 3, police shot and killed a suspected motorcycle thief.

The police said he was killed while trying to escape, but witnesses said he had been

handcuffed and led down railway tracks by two men in plain clothes before he was


Judicial Reform

Ethnic Vietnamese along the Bassac River in November 1999 were sent floating downstream, where they still remain in limbo.

Little progress was made in reforming Cambodia's judicial system, plagued by corruption

and low-paid and poorly trained personnel. A Council for Judicial Reform, established

in 1999 at the urging of Cambodia's international donors, was completely inactive

during the year. A legal reform unit established by the Council of Ministers in 2000

with World Bank funding accomplished little apart from hiring consultants to conduct

a number of studies.

The Supreme Council of Magistracy (SCM) - responsible for overseeing and disciplining

judges and commenting on draft laws - began to meet more regularly. During the second

half of the year the SCM Disciplinary Council investigated a number of complaints

against court officials and took disciplinary action against five judges and one


In December 1999, ostensibly in an effort to curb rampant corruption in the judiciary,

Hun Sen issued a directive to suspend several judges in Phnom Penh and rearrest more

than sixty individuals who allegedly had bribed their way out of prison. No warrants

were produced for the arrests, however, nor were established legal mechanisms employed.

While a number of release warrants were issued in December 2000, as of this writing

at least six of those rearrested remained in jail, beyond legal pre-trial detention


The acquittal of former Khmer Rouge commander Chhouk Rin in July underscored the

weakness of the judicial system. Rin was tried on July 18 for armed robbery, terrorism,

and destruction of public property in conjunction with the murder of three Western

hostages in 1994.

Rin, who defected to the RCAF in 1994, was acquitted on the basis of a 1994 law that

granted an amnesty to Khmer Rouge who defected within six months of the law's promulgation,

despite the fact that the kidnapping took place after the law was passed.

Prisoners continued to be subjected to excessive pre-trial detention, food and water

shortages, lack of medical care, and shackling. One-quarter of prison inmates interviewed

over a three-year period by Licadho, a local human rights group, stated that they

had been tortured, threatened, or otherwise intimidated while in police custody after

their arrests.

As of August 2000, 369 inmates, some 25 percent of Phnom Penh's prison population,

had been held awaiting trial longer than allowed by law. At this writing, the government

had not taken any steps to punish the execution-style killing of two escaped prisoners

upon their recapture by guards at the Sihanoukville prison in June 1999.


Freedom of Expression

The government and the CPP continued to dominate the airwaves, but more than twenty

privately-owned newspapers, some affiliated with opposition parties, were able to

publish regularly. The Ministry of Information ordered the suspension of several

newspapers, however, for allegedly defaming national leaders and endangering national


In April, the ministry ordered the thirty-day suspension of Pratebath Poramean Kampuchea

(Cambodian News Bulletin) for allegedly insulting government officials. The bulletin

was suspended again in July for reprinting a South China Morning Post article that

allegedly defamed the King.

In February, two opposition newspapers, Samleng Yuvachun Khmer (Voice of Khmer Youth)

and Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience), were threatened with closure by the Ministry

but then given a reprieve after they published letters of apology for allegedly inciting

racial violence and insulting the King.

Ethnic Vietnamese minorities continued to face repression. In November 1999, Phnom

Penh municipal authorities evicted approximately 600 ethnic Vietnamese residents

from a floating village on the Bassac River, charging that they were illegal immigrants.

A number of those evicted told rights workers that they were long-time Cambodian

citizens and that local authorities confiscated their identity documents before the

eviction. The villagers were forced to float downstream to a location near the Vietnamese

border, where they remained as of this writing.

Harassment and arrests of suspected "Free Vietnam" members in Cambodia

opposed to the government of Vietnam increased. As the twenty-fifth anniversary of

the reunification of Vietnam on April 30 neared, Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities

announced that they were conducting joint actions to thwart suspected terrorist attacks.

In February, Truong Tan Hoang and Vinh Anh Tung, both alleged "Free Vietnam"

members, were arrested in different cities. In March, police in Phnom Penh surrounded

and entered the homes of several other suspected members, who eluded arrest by going

into hiding.

Since 1996, more than twenty people suspected of belonging to anti-Hanoi organizations

have been arrested in Cambodia. They have then either "disappeared" or

been deported to Vietnam, where some have been tortured and imprisoned. Vietnamese

asylum seekers in Cambodia appeared to be at higher risk of forcible return than

asylum seekers from other countries because of inconsistent application of protection

policies by the Phnom Penh office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Evictions and forcible confiscation of land by military and civilian authorities

continued to rank as one of Cambodia's most pervasive human rights problems. One

NGO, Legal Aid of Cambodia, estimated its land-related caseload at around 6,000 families,

with the vast majority of the conflicts involving military commanders or provincial

and local officials.

Particularly vulnerable to land confiscation were Cambodia's indigenous ethnic minorities

in the northeast, whose lands were threatened by logging concessions and industrial


With assistance from NGOs and consultants from the Asian Development Bank, a revised

land law was drafted and submitted to the Council of Ministers in July. In June,

both King Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed strong support for the revised

law to provide communal land ownership rights for indigenous minorities.

Labor Rights

Labor violations included arbitrary dismissal, unsafe working conditions, failure

to pay the minimum wage, and discrimination and intimidation of union and worker

activists. A labor code passed in 1997 met international standards, but enforcement

was poor and procedures for registering unions remained cumbersome.

In March, the Ministry of Labor issued a circular banning strikes that did not take

place within the premise of a factory, enterprise or establishment and requiring

at least seven days prior notice to the employer and the ministry in advance of a

strike. Nevertheless, Cambodia's labor movement remained strong through the year.

In June, thousands of garment workers went on strike in Phnom Penh to press for better

working conditions and an increase in monthly wages.

Cambodia continued to be plagued by trafficking of people from rural areas and other

countries for sexual exploitation or to work in substandard conditions in Phnom Penh

sweatshops. Powerful figures running trafficking networks, and their accomplices

- many of them government officials, soldiers, or police - were usually immune from


In twenty cases of human trafficking recorded by Licadho from late 1999 to early

2000, for example, only three perpetrators had been arrested and detained as of May


In one incident in February, fifty-one trafficked workers from Vietnam and China

were detained and forced to work at the GT garment factory in Phnom Penh. Workers

stated that they had been lured to Cambodia with promises that they would be paid

U.S. $100 a month for eight hours of work a day.

Instead, during their first three months at work they were paid around $50 a month

and prohibited from leaving the factory. Police raided the factory and released the

workers, but afterwards repeatedly threatened to arrest the workers for lacking proper

documentation to work in Cambodia.

No punitive action was taken against those who were responsible for smuggling the

workers into Cambodia and detaining and exploiting them in the factory.

In another case in August, police raided the Best Western hotel in Phnom Penh, where

seven women recruited from Romania and Moldova had been promised jobs as dancers.

Instead, they had been kept against their will in the hotel or its affiliate, where

they were forced to work as prostitutes.

Many of their clients were reportedly government officials.

The hotel owner, a Chinese-Canadian who had taken the women's passports from them

when they arrived in Phnom Penh, was released by police after questioning, reportedly

for lack of evidence. No arrests were made of those who recruited the women in Europe

and facilitated their entry to Cambodia.

In September, the Ministry of Women's Affairs announced that it was establishing

a blacklist system to banish suspected foreign sex offenders from Cambodia, whether

or not they had been convicted. When some human rights workers criticized the blacklist

system for circumventing due process and the presumption of innocence, the ministry

defended the move by acknowledging that Cambodian courts could not be depended upon

to uphold the law.

Human Rights Defenders

Some forty Cambodian nongovernmental human rights organizations were active nationally

in human rights education and investigating abuses. During the year, however, government

attacks escalated on Cambodian human rights groups and independent electoral monitoring


The most serious incidents occurred when Cambodian rights groups called for lawful

investigations of widespread arrests of alleged Cambodian Freedom Fighters in November

and the "disappearances" of alleged "Free Khmer" members in August.

Afterwards, local and national authorities made threatening statements against the

human rights groups, with the Ministry of Defense announcing in August that it would

file defamation charges against the Human Rights Action Committee, which publicly

condemned extrajudicial executions and "disappearances" in Kratie

in May.

In March, Phnom Penh authorities threatened to arrest Licadho staff members after

the group provided humanitarian assistance to ethnic Vietnamese lacking proper work

authorization. The same month, authorities in Koh Kong province threatened to arrest

rights workers from ADHOC in connection with a trafficking case, when a woman who

had sold her daughter brought charges of physical assault against ADHOC's provincial

coordinator. The woman later withdrew her complaint and admitted that she had been

pressured by police to file the complaint.

In October 1999, three suspects were arrested in conjunction with the December 1998

killing of Pourng Tong, an activist member of ADHOC. In March 2000, however, the

suspects were released.

In late 1999, Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia negotiated a new,

two-year extension of the mandate of the Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner

for Human Rights (COHCHR), to March 2002. However, as of this writing the Cambodian

government had not yet signed a memorandum of understanding to formalize the agreement

with the COHCHR, leaving the office in a somewhat precarious position. In addition,

COHCHR staff - particularly Cambodian nationals - came under threat on several occasions

during 2000. In October, a soldier threatened to shoot not only SRP parliamentarian

Cheam Channy but also U.N. human rights workers who had intervened on Channy's behalf.



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