The Ministry of Interior will investigate the Cambodian Center for Human Rights but needs “clear reasons” to shutter the organisation, two officials said yesterday, a day after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the rights group’s closure over its purported links to “foreigners”.
Meanwhile, international criticism of the inquiry mounted yesterday, with observers characterising the investigation as part of a campaign to “strangle” Cambodian civil society.
Speaking to reporters after a National Assembly meeting yesterday, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said his ministry was checking the NGO’s bylaws, but said they couldn’t take immediate action.
“We need reasons . . . [We] cannot do anything without reasons,” he said.
Prak Sam Oeun, director general at the ministry’s General Administration Department, said he had listened to the premier’s speech but had not received any official orders to take action against the NGO, which he said had fully complied with the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango).
“They submitted . . . whatever report is required. With regards to the requirements and duties based on [Lango], they followed it,” he said. “We need to research [the premier’s allegations]. We don’t dare to say now . . . I have not received any advice yet.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director of CCHR, said in an email that she had not received any official communication from the ministry. “CCHR has formally approached both the prime minister and the Ministry of Interior, offering to meet in order to discuss the situation and clarify any misperceptions around CCHR’s role and independence,” she said. “I am deeply convinced that any genuinely independent and impartial investigation would clear CCHR of any alleged wrongdoing.”
Sopheap added that despite a “highly stressful” situation, the organisation would continue its operations, which she said were “solely dedicated to promoting and protecting the human rights” in Cambodia.
International organisations, meanwhile, lined up to criticise the move by the prime minister to go after the NGO, which the government has previously sought to link to the Cambodia National Rescue Party. The party – until recently the only legitimate competitor to the ruling CPP – was dissolved this month over accusations it was fomenting a foreign-backed “revolution”.
Amnesty International’s Cambodia Campaigner Janice Beanland situated the threats in an ongoing crackdown on civil society. “The attempts to shut down CCHR, one of the most prominent human rights organisations in Cambodia, [are] a clear attempt to strangle civil society,” she said in an email. “The speed and ruthlessness of the authorities’ attempts to use baseless conspiracy theories to silence critics is deeply alarming.”
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) in a press release on Sunday echoed similar sentiments. “First, they targeted the media,” Seapa executive director Edgardo Legaspi said, referring to the closure of the Cambodia Daily newspaper and numerous independent radio broadcasters. “Then, they dissolved the opposition. Now, they might have just begun a more vigorous crackdown on NGOs.”
Charles Santiago, Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights chair, meanwhile, in a press release on Sunday said that the move was “further evidence of Cambodia’s continued slide deeper into dictatorship”. The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development and the World Organisation Against Torture also condemned the move.
Mahmoud Garga, of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights office in Cambodia, said in an email that OHCHR was “following very closely the evolution of the situation concerning the CCHR and are in contact with partners on the issue”.