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.
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.
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
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
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
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 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 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.