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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Toxic justice - HR workers under threat

Toxic justice - HR workers under threat

Five months after riots in Sihanoukville against the dumping of toxic waste, two

Cambodian human rights workers remain charged with robbery and property damage for

their actions at the time, and face up to 10 years in jail if convicted. But what

did they actually do? In edited extracts from a new report, the international human

rights group Human Rights Watch concludes that the accused are guilty only

of doing their job.

THE importation of nearly 3,000 tons of Taiwanese toxic waste late last year prompted

initial outrage from Cambodian leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, who described

it as "heavier" (more serious) than United States' bombing of Iraq. It

provoked a similar reaction from local people: thousands of panicked residents fled

Sihanoukville, where the waste was dumped, while others held two days of public protests

in December.

The demonstrations were not lawfully approved, however, and some protesters, who

blamed government corruption for the waste importation, grew violent. Several buildings,

including the home of a deputy governor, were ransacked.

Immediately after the protests, Licadho staff members Kim Sen and Meas Minear were

arrested and imprisoned for a month. Effectively accused of inciting violent demonstrations,

the two remain charged with robbery and property damage, facing up to 10 years in

prison if tried and convicted. Under Cambodian law, the Sihanoukville court has until

late June this year - six months from the date of arrest - to decide whether to hold

a trial.

A Human Rights Watch investigation has found that the Licadho employees are being

prosecuted for actions well within their human rights mandate. Furthemore, their

arrests were improper, as the Court of Appeal has found, and their prosecution has

been characterized by a lack of evidence.

Human Rights Watch strongly urges the immediate dismissal of the charges against

Kim Sen and Meas Minear, for lack of evidence and/or procedural violations of their

rights. Charges against a co-accused, a market vendor named Khieu Piseth, arrested

solely because of his contact with the Licadho staff, should also be dropped.

Background

The Taiwanese toxic waste was shipped to Sihanoukville and dumped in a field early

last December. Poor villagers scavenged the plastic sheeting on the waste, and many

later complained of sickness. At the time of the demonstrations, no tests had been

done on the waste, which was later found to have high mercury content. Rumors that

the waste was radioactive swept through Sihanoukville, as did news of the Dec 16

death of port worker Pich Sovann, who had unloaded the ship carrying the waste. People

began fleeing the city.

On Dec 18 about 50 city market vendors went to Licadho's Sihanoukville office and

spoke to Kim Sen, its coordinator, and Meas Minear, an investigator. The vendors

were angry that the "poisoned rubbish" would kill them and their families

or, at least, if many people fled town, kill their market businesses. In front of

them, Kim Sen telephoned Sihanoukville's Second Deputy Governor, Hing Sarin, to relay

the vendors' concerns. (Hing Sarin, in a March 1999 Human Rights Watch interview,

confirmed that Kim Sen had phoned him.) After the phone call, Kim Sen, Meas Minear

and the vendors talked about sending a petition to the municipality. At the vendors'

request, Meas Minear drafted a brief petition asking that the waste be removed from

Cambodia. A few people thumbprinted the petition in the Licadho office, before taking

it away to collect more thumbprints. Kim Sen offered to send the petition, once completed,

to the municipality on the vendors' behalf.

The next morning, some vendors again visited Licadho, to return the petition, with

700 thumbprints. Another vendor, named Khieu Piseth, arrived to say that some market

people now wanted to hold a demonstration. Kim Sen explained that citizens had the

right to demonstrate, but they first had to notify the authorities. His advice was

correct: Cambodian law requires three days advance written notice to the local authorities

of public demonstrations.

During this conversation, two journalists from the pro-CPP newspaper Sathearanak

Mati (Public Opinion) arrived at Licadho's office. They listened to the conversation,

arranged to photocopy the petition, and took a photograph of Kim Sen, Meas Minear

and Khieu Piseth sitting down and talking. (The authorities have cited this photograph,

and the petition, as "evidence" that Kim Sen, Meas Minear and Khieu Piseth

incited the subsequent violent demonstrations. In fact, articles published by Public

Opinion acknowledged that Kim Sen had spoken at this meeting of only a lawfully-approved,

peaceful demonstration.)

During the meeting with the vendors, Kim Sen, concerned that an unlawful demonstration

might break out, twice telephoned the district police chief, Prum Sokhan, to inform

him. (Prum Sokhan later confirmed, to Human Rights Watch, receiving the two calls.)

The demonstrations

By the time of Kim Sen and Prum Sokhan's second phone conversation, however, protesters

were already marching from Sihanouk-ville's city market to First Deputy Governor

Khim Bo's house. Both Prum Sokhan and Kim Sen went there, and the police chief asked

the protesters if they had permission to demonstrate. "We have no permission,

we have no leaders. But if the waste is not removed, we will die," was the angry

reply, according to Prum Sokhan. Soon, the protesters marched off. According to Kim

Sen, several of them said they were going to "fight" Licadho, whom they

blamed for not helping them enough. Kim Sen returned to his office, just before the

protesters marched past. Kim Sen spoke to several protesters, explaining that only

the government, not Licadho, could take action over the toxic waste. At this point,

a Public Opinion journalist took another photograph, which shows Kim Sen standing

outside his office as demonstrators go past. (The authorities now consider this "evidence"

that the demonstrators stopped to take orders from Kim Sen.)

The protesters went to the Customs office, and then to the import inspection agency

Camcontrol, where they toppled a sign and smashed windows. Police and military police

were present but could not calm the crowd. Kim Sen followed and watched the protesters,

in line with his human rights mandate, until they dispersed in the late afternoon.

At no time did any police allege that Kim Sen was leading or inciting the rally.

The next morning, demonstrations again broke out. Protesters targeted the Customs

and economic police offices, before working their way toward the municipality headquarters.

Here, governor Khim Bo was meeting with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior

Sar Kheng, who had been dispatched to Sihanoukville to investigate the waste dumping.

Kim Sen and Meas Minear followed and watched the protesters, who eventually made

their way to Kamsab, the state-owned shipping agency, which is housed in a small,

beachfront hotel. Hundreds of protesters stormed the hotel, throwing beds, televisions,

air conditioners out the windows. One man was fatally injured by falling debris.

In the face of the riot, police stood watching, along with the Licadho workers. Kim

Sen moved closer at one stage, to check whether the fatally-wounded man was receiving

medical treatment. After more than an hour of rampage, the mob left, heading for

governor Khim Bo's house up the road.

Kim Sen stayed at the ruined hotel, where he met one of the Kamsab managers. At no

point did the manager accuse him of orchestrating the vandalism. Indeed, the manager

gave Kim Sen a ride into town, and the pair arranged to meet for lunch later. (The

manager, in a March 1999 Human Rights Watch interview, confirmed this version of

events. He said he had watched the hotel's destruction, and never saw Kim Sen participating.)

At Khim Bo's house, meanwhile, protesters smashed through the locked gates, destroyed

or looted property that reportedly included a large sum of cash (some US$230,000,

court officials said later), and set fire to the governor's vehicle. Police and military

police arrested about nine people in or near the house; at least two of them were

allegedly later tortured in police custody.

Hearing of events at Khim Bo's house, Kim Sen and Meas Minear separately went there.

They watched the commotion for a short time. As at Kamsab and elsewhere during the

demonstrations, there is no suggestion that any police or military police present

at Khim Bo's house challenged the Licadho staff or accused them of any wrongdoing.

Eventually, the protesters dispersed when military police fired warning shots over

their heads.

Licadho arrests

Kim Sen and Meas Minear were arrested the next day, Dec 21, by which time the

authorities had received the Public Opinion journalists' photographs. There is convincing

evidence that the arrests had the approval of Sar Kheng, who had been with Khim Bo

during the trouble the day before. A government official told Human Rights Watch

that Sar Kheng was party to discussions about arresting the Licadho staff, although

it was Khim Bo who pushed the hardest for their arrests.

During the separate arrests of Kim Sen and Meas Minear, the arresting police were

asked - but failed to - show arrest warrants. During Kim Sen's arrest, Sihanoukville

deputy police commissioner Tak Vantha produced a photograph - the one taken by Public

Opinion journalists at Licadho's office two days earlier, which pictured Kim Sen,

Meas Minear and Khieu Piseth - in apparent explanation for the arrest.

Khieu Piseth was arrested (also without being shown a warrant) at his house the same

day.

Under Cambodian law, no one can be arrested without a warrant unless they are caught

in the act of committing a crime.

The Sihanoukville Court

Charged with robbery and property damage, and denied pre-trial release by the

Sihnoukville court, Kim Sen and Meas Minear spent one month in prison. The Court

of Appeal ordered their release, and that of Khieu Piseth, on January 20. The Court

of Appeal judge said that the arrests and detention were improper, because the Sihanoukville

court had failed to review the evidence against them beforehand.

After internal Ministry of Justice inquiries into the case, the Minister of Justice

was informed that the Sihanoukville court had allegedly issued arrest warrants after

Kim Sen and Meas Minear were arrested, according to two senior officials interviewed

by Human Rights Watch. The Minister was also told there was insufficient evidence

for the pair's prosecution.

Three months after the arrests, the Sihanoukville court still lacked evidence. "The

investigation has so far not found evidence of these two offences [robbery and property

damage]," investigating judge Ke Sakhon told Human Rights Watch in a March 1999

interview. He added that "more evidence may be found in the future", or

the charges against them might be changed.

One senior court source, pressed on why the charges had not been dropped, made a

telling comment: "Please, be calm, do not criticize," he told Human Rights

Watch. "Now, when the victims [of the demonstrations] are calming down, please

don't make them angry again. If the victims are angry again, Kim Sen and Meas Minear

will go back to prison." It was clear by "victims" that he meant First

Deputy Governor Khim Bo.

Conclusions

None of Kim Sen and Meas Minear's actions before the protests - assisting the market

vendors to draft a petition, and advising them of the law on demonstrations - constitute

a crime under Cambodian law. Furthemore, the Licadho staff's presence during the

demonstrations was entirely appropriate, in a country where demonstrations have led

to human rights violations in the past. There is no suggestion that any police confronted

the Licadho staff, or accused them of incitement, during the protests. Indeed, a

police report to the court dated Dec 28, seven days after Kim Sen and Meas Minear's

arrests, did not include the Licadho pair in a list of names of alleged demonstration

leaders.

In sharp contrast to the arbitrary arrests and jailing of the Licadho staff was the

Sihanouk-ville court's treatment of government officials accused of illegally permitting

the toxic waste importation. Nearly three months after the importation, charges were

filed against three officials, who were brought to the court, with their lawyers,

eight days after arrests warrants were issued for them, and immediately granted pre-trial

release.

The overwhelming evidence is that Licadho's Kim Sen and Meas Minear sought only to

help people to express their anger and fear in a lawful manner. Their arrests sent

a chilling message not only to human rights workers, but to environmental advocates,

legal organizations and other nongovernment groups who may advise citizens of their

rights.

- Extracted from "Toxic Justice: Human Rights, Justice and Toxic Waste in

Cambodia," a Human Rights Watch report on the toxic waste case.

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