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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - A report on human rights during the year 2001 in Cambodia

A report on human rights during the year 2001 in Cambodia

Human Rights Watch, an international organization that monitors human rights

abuses around the globe, has released its annual review of human rights developments

in Cambodia.

The right to life and dignity: a Montagnard refugee receives food aid in Mondolkiri Province May, 2001 after fleeing Vietnam.

Cambodia's human rights record during 2001 included progress on some issues as well

as several disappointing setbacks. By the end of the year, Cambodia was close to

becoming the first Southeast Asian country to ratify the Rome Statute of the International

Criminal Court (ICC), but the government continued its efforts to dilute the power

of a tribunal to bring the Khmer Rouge to justice.

While NGOs and human rights organizations were able to exercise their rights to freedom

of association, political violence increased. The government risked angering its

long-time ally Vietnam by affording temporary asylum to ethnic minority asylum seekers

from Vietnam, thereby meeting its obligations as a signatory to the 1951 Refugee

Convention. At the same time, provincial Cambodian officials deported more than 100

asylum seekers back to Vietnam, violating the fundamental principle of non-refoulement.

Prison conditions remained poor and torture continued to be used by police and prison

officials with impunity. Social and environmental rights increasingly emerged as

an issue. Hundreds of villagers organized to protect community fisheries, forests,

and other natural resources from abusive exploitation by government agencies or officially

sanctioned companies.

Commune elections

Political violence increased as preparations began for long overdue local elections,

scheduled for February 2002 in Cambodia's 1,600 communes, or subdistricts. In the

elections, existing commune chiefs, mostly appointed by the ruling Cambodian People's

Party (CPP), were to be replaced with popularly elected commune councils. In September,

the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of eighteen nongovernmental

organizations (NGOs), documented eighty-two cases of political threats and violence

since the beginning of the year, most of them directed at the opposition Sam Rainsy

Party (SRP).

By the end of the year, at least ten likely commune candidates had been shot dead

and two others wounded. Among these were SRP commune candidate Uch Horn, who was

killed on June 30 in Kompong Speu. He had previously complained to two local human

rights organizations and the U.N. that he had received death threats.

On July 1, Soeung Sem, a commune candidate for the royalist Funcinpec Party, survived

a shooting in Pursat, but Funcinpec candidate Meas Soy was shot and killed on July

17 in Kompong Chhnang. SRP activist Toch Savoeun was shot and killed on August 23

by two unidentified gunmen at his home in Siem Reap.

On November 5 SRP candidate Sam Sophear was beaten to death by five unknown assailants

in Battambang, followed by the fatal shootings of Funcinpec candidate Thon Pally

and SRP candidate Phuong Sophat in Kompong Cham province on November 14. While Cambodian

human rights groups and the Cambodia Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human

Rights (COHCHR) determined that at least six of the killings may have been politically

motivated, local officials primarily attributed the murders to personal disputes.

In August, after a barrage of criticism from donor countries, human rights groups

and the U.N., the government established a Central Security Office comprising representatives

from the interior and defense ministries, national police, military, and the National

Election Commission (NEC), to address electoral violence. By year's end, the office

was still inactive.

There were reports of vote buying as early as August. The Committee for Free and

Fair Elections (Comfrel) reported that CPP activists in Takeo and Banteay Meanchey

provinces were promising gifts to voters in exchange for pledges of loyalty to the

CPP. In September, Comfrel reported widespread confiscation of voter registration

cards by CPP officials and accused the CPP of pressuring people in many provinces

to sign documents pledging to vote for the CPP.

Local authorities and in some cases uniformed police officers carried out voter opinion

surveys on behalf of the CPP, distributing forms with lists of names and photographs

of possible candidates. Election monitoring NGOs charged that this was in violation

of the Commune Election Law, which calls for government institutions to be politically


The Judiciary and steps toward a KR tribunal

Progress toward establishing a tribunal to bring former members of the Khmer Rouge

to justice was slow. In July 2000, the government had agreed on legislation with

the U.N. that would establish a "mixed tribunal" presided over by both

Cambodian and international judges and co-prosecutors.

However, the legislation sent to the Cambodian National Assembly in January 2001

differed markedly from what had been agreed on, most notably deleting the provision

that prior amnesties would not be a bar to prosecution. This had been designed to

ensure that key people, such as former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, granted

a royal pardon in 1996, could still be brought to justice.

The U.N.'s Office of Legal Affairs sent a strongly worded letter to the Cambodian

government in January 2001, calling for clarifications or changes to seventeen of

the forty-eight articles in the draft law. In June, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan

stressed that the Cambodian law should accord with the previous agreements, but Prime

Minister Hun Sen's response was that Cambodia would conduct its own tribunal if the

U.N. refused to participate.

In August, the National Assembly passed the tribunal legislation as proposed by the

government. By year's end, the U.N. had still to agree and sign a Memorandum of Understanding

with the Cambodian government, one of the final steps towards actually establishing

the court.

It was clear, however, that former members of the Khmer Rouge were becoming apprehensive.

In August, the Democratic National Union Movement (DNUM), a group loyal to Ieng Sary,

urged the government not to prosecute their leader, and former Khmer Rouge leader

Khieu Samphan issued a seven-page public letter in which he offered an unusual apology

to the Cambodian people.

Cambodia's judicial system remained weak and far from independent, with numerous

court decisions influenced by corruption or apparent political influence. The high-profile

trials in June and October of sixty alleged members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters

(CFF) fell short of international standards for fairness. Most of the defendants

were arrested without warrants and had little or no access to their lawyers while

in pre-trial detention, which exceeded the legal limit of six months.

After the first day of the trial of the first thirty-two defendants in June, most

of the lawyers for the accused boycotted the proceedings, citing breaches of proper

procedures. Five lawyers subsequently received anonymous threats of violence against

them if they did not return to the courtroom. The judge appointed two new lawyers

to act for all of the accused, and refused to delay the hearing, leaving these lawyers

with no opportunity to meet their clients or prepare an adequate defense. On June

22, all but two of the first group of accused were convicted of terrorism and membership

in an illegal armed group, and given sentences ranging from three years to life in

prison. Another twenty-six defendants were convicted in the October trial.


In September 2001, more than fifty additional CFF suspects were arrested in the

provinces and Phnom Penh. Human rights groups expressed concerns that the government's

response to the CFF's November 2000 attack in Phnom Penh could be used as a pretext

to intimidate opposition party members, particularly as the commune election campaign

began to get underway.

Several political killings resulted in trials. On March 15, the Kampot provincial

court found commune chief Im Nan, a CPP member, and three accomplices guilty of the

murder of Funcinpec commune candidate Pak Choeun in June 2000. On October 12, a former

soldier, Sang Rin, and another accused were convicted of the murder of SRP member

Uch Horn at a trial in the Kompong Speu provincial court. In both cases rights groups

held that the murders were politically motivated; the courts, however, attributed

both murders to retaliation for the victims' alleged use of "black magic."

Refugee influx

Beginning in March, a slow but steady stream of refugees from Vietnam entered Cambodia's

eastern Mondolkiri and Ratanakiri provinces. They were indigenous minority people

from Vietnam's Central Highlands, known collectively as Montagnards, who were displaced

by a Vietnamese government crackdown in February.

On March 23, Cambodian police arrested twenty-four Montagnards in Mondolkiri and

took them to the municipal Gendarmerie headquarters in Phnom Penh, where they detained

them for several weeks. Prime Minister Hun Sen initially threatened to deport the

group, saying he did not want Cambodia to become a haven for other countries' political

opponents. After considerable international pressure, Cambodia agreed to allow United

Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representatives to interview the Montagnards

on March 31, and by April, 38 Mon-tagnards were resettled in the United States.

In the following months, more than 1,200 Montagnards crossed the border to Cambodia.

Provincial officials forcibly returned several hundred back to Vietnam and in May

attempted to arrest and deport several refugees under UNHCR protection. After negotiations

between UNHCR and the government, and pressure from several foreign embassies, Cambodia

agreed to provide temporary asylum to Montagnards fleeing Vietnam at two sites operated

by UNHCR. By the end of the year, the number of Montagnard asylum seekers in Cambodia

had swelled to more than 1,000.

Freedom of Association and expression

Unlike in neighboring Laos and Vietnam, recent years have seen the development of

a thriving civil society in Cambodia and the emergence of hundreds of local NGOs.

The government generally does not obstruct public meetings. In June, however, the

Council of Ministers banned a public forum on the country's border disputes, organized

by the Students Movement for Democracy, on grounds that it could confuse the public

by raising disagreements with the government's National Committee on Border Disputes.

For the most part, rallies and demonstrations were allowed, although demonstrators

were sometimes dispersed by police or by counter-demonstrators organized by the government.

As in previous years, hundreds of farmers from the countryside periodically gathered

in front of the National Assembly to demand resolution of land or fishing conflicts

or appeal for flood and food relief.

In February, scuffles broke out in Siem Reap at the SRP's annual congress, when counter-demonstrators

were trucked in to disrupt the proceedings. Police used water cannons to disperse

a Buddhist ceremony organized to mark the end of the SRP's congress, reportedly because

the SRP lacked proper authorization to hold the ceremony.

In May, more than 700 market vendors in Siem Reap demonstrated against a provincial

decision to evict them from the provincial market and construct a new market where

vendors would be charged higher rents. Cambodian human rights groups urged the provincial

authorities to organize a public forum to resolve the dispute. Instead, on July 9

police and soldiers surrounded the market, firing in the air and forcibly removed

the vendors, at least fourteen of whom were beaten, handcuffed and temporarily detained

by provincial military police. Several SRP parliamentarians observing the process

were also assaulted. In August, Hun Sen supported a proposal for negotiations to

resume between the vendors and representatives of the market developers.

Cambodian television stations were still owned fully or partly by the government,

which continued to deny a broadcast license to the opposition SRP on the grounds

that no frequencies were available. In February, Sam Rainsy announced plans to start

broadcasting a one-hour radio program from an un-named Asian country.

Protesters get their messages across in Phnom Penh on Workers' Day, May 1, 2001.

The only independent radio station to broadcast during the year, Sambok Kmum (Beehive),

went out of business temporarily in November until it was able to raise more operating

funds. The NEC's media monitoring subcommittee primarily focused on the political

content of voter education materials produced by election NGOs, rather than the denial

of access to the airwaves by opposition parties during the election campaign. NGO

leaders were occasionally featured on radio and television programs to discuss social


More than two dozen privately owned newspapers were published, including some affiliated

with opposition groups. Foreign Minister Hor Nam Hong sued three journalists from

the English-language Cambodia Daily for defamation after they published an article

in January that examined his alleged role in the Khmer Rouge regime. In September,

the Phnom Penh municipal court ordered the journalists to pay US$6,500 in compensation

to Hor Nam Hong and a $1,280 fine to the government. Both sides appealed the decision.

In August, the Ministry of Information banned a Khmer-language book written by Sam

Rainsy entitled "Light of Justice," saying that it made false allegations

about the government. In response, Rainsy filed a complaint against the banning in

the Phnom Penh municipal court in September.

The Ministry of Information revived a media subdecree, in the works since 1996. It

included provisions for the licensing of newspapers and defined vague terms used

in the 1994 Press Law, including national security and political stability. As a

result of pressure from journalist associations and human rights groups, several

provisions were dropped from the original draft subdecree, including requirements

that publishers certify that they have 2.5 million riel (about U.S. $640) in the

bank and health certificates showing they have no mental problems.

Freedom of expression came under threat in September, when the Ministry of Cults

and Religion issued a decision forbidding political discussions in the country's

mosques following the September 11 attacks in the United States as well as a controversial

leadership split in a mosque near Phnom Penh. In October, Hun Sen reversed the Ministry's


Prison conditions continued to be poor, with many facilities seriously overcrowded

and lacking adequate medical care, food, and water. At least six prisoners died within

a two-month period in Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh because of insufficient food

and medication, according to a report by a Cambodian human rights organization. The

use of shackles was reported in prisons in Kompong Som and Kompong Cham. Pre-trial

detention beyond the legal limit of six months was common.

Torture continued to be used with impunity, particularly by police officers attempting

to extract confessions from suspects in custody. Police also failed to intervene

to stop violence against women either in the home, where domestic abuse was considered

a family matter, or in the sex industry, which is often supported and protected by

members of the military, police or other government officials.

In an unusual development, several rare convictions for child abuse were made in

Phnom Penh Municipal Court. These included the convictions of two adults in June

for the almost daily torture of a three-year-old child in their care. The adults,

who had beaten, kicked, and thrown the child to the ground, were given the minimum

sentence of four months in prison.

Social and environmental rights

Cambodian human rights organizations increasingly gave attention to social and environmental

rights. Villagers filed complaints protesting the confiscation by military officers

and local officials of natural resources that rural communities depend on for their

livelihoods - such as bamboo, tree resin, and rattan. They also protested the government's

granting of concessions to exploit such resources.

Environmental and human rights advocates worked to draft a Community Forest Subdecree

that would protect community user rights to forests that villagers rely upon for

collection of forest products. In April, the Department of Forestry issued an instruction

calling for the temporary suspension, in all forest concessions, of cutting of all

trees from which people collect resin. At the end of the year Hun Sen announced the

suspension of all logging operations, effective from January 1, 2002.

Positive steps were taken during the year to protect community fisheries, on which

a huge percentage of Cambodians depend. In late 2000 Hun Sen announced that fishing

lots would be taken away from large concessionaires and returned to local people.

He subsequently dismissed the director of the Department of Fisheries for not implementing

the decision.

The department involved local communities in developing legislation to protect community

fisheries, setting a positive precedent for local participation in natural resource

management. Despite these efforts, poor implementation of policies at the local level,

reflected in the confiscation of community fishing lots by fishery department officials,

continued to pose a problem in some areas.

Land conflicts also remained a major issue throughout the country. Legal Aid of Cambodia

(LAC), a local NGO, reported that its land-related caseload involved 7,000 families,

or 35,000 people, with the vast majority of the conflicts involving military commanders

or provincial and local officials.

In one high-profile case, indigenous minority villagers in Ratanakiri province filed

a lawsuit seeking to protect their rights to 1,250 hectares of village land that

they said had been fraudulently obtained by a representative of a military general.

Villagers were given bags of salt and promises of development in return for their

thumbprints on documents that - without their knowledge - transferred ownership of

their ancestral lands to the general.

In a decision in March, the Ratanakiri provincial court ruled against the villagers'

civil complaint. With the help of LAC the villagers then took the case to the Appeals

Court in Phnom Penh, but it had not been heard by year's end. In July, the National

Assembly passed a new land law, drafted with the input of NGOs and local communities,

designed to stem the widespread practice of land grabbing.

Defending human rights

Several dozen Cambodian human rights organizations were active throughout the country

investigating violations, monitoring prison conditions, observing trials, and conducting

human rights education. In addition, three large NGOs specializing in election observation

monitored voter registration and the commune election process.

Overall, the atmosphere for NGOs was less threatening than in previous years, although

several times during the year public officials issued strongly worded warnings to

NGOs. In the months following the November 2000 CFF attack in Phnom Penh, human rights

groups and their leaders came under strong criticism from officials when the groups

called for due process to be followed in the arrests and trial of alleged CFF members.

In several speeches Prime Minister Hun Sen charged that NGOs were hiding terrorists

"under their logos" and threatened them with arrest.

Global Witness, which has served as an independent monitor within the government's

Forest Crime Monitoring and Reporting project since 1999, came under fire in January

when it released a report critical of illegal logging and resource rights abuses

just prior to an international donor meeting.

Government officials said Global Witness should have given them the opportunity to

review and comment on the report before it was publicized. Prime Minister Hun Sen

threatened to expel the group from Cambodia but relented after pressure from donors.

In June, Global Witness signed an agreement with the government on new reporting

procedures shortly before the annual donor meeting.

In July, Hun Sen criticized the Human Rights Action Committee for its statements

deploring the rise in political violence. He said the burden of proof was on the

NGOs to show that the killings of commune candidates were politically motivated.

In October, the acting director of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense

of Human Rights (Licadho), a local human rights group, faced criminal charges when

a court accepted a complaint by the adoptive parents of a seven-year-old girl whom

Licadho was sheltering.

Licadho previously had sought child abuse charges against the adoptive parents and

had been granted temporarily lawful custody of the child. Cambodian and international

rights groups expressed concern that the initiation of criminal proceedings appeared

to be without foundation and to be aimed at intimidating Licadho. By late December

the case was still pending.




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