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PM accuses Kem Sokha-founded NGO of serving foreign interests, says it ‘must close’

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Traffic passes in front of Cambodian Center for Human Rights headquarters yesterday in Phnom Penh. Pha Lina

PM accuses Kem Sokha-founded NGO of serving foreign interests, says it ‘must close’

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday called for closure of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) – one of the country’s most prominent rights groups – accusing it of taking direction from “foreigners” and appearing to link it to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s purported “revolution”.

The CNRP – the country’s largest opposition party – was dissolved by the Supreme Court in a widely condemned decision earlier this month over accusations it was engaging in a foreign-backed “lotus revolution”. The party’s former president, Kem Sokha, is currently jailed awaiting trial on “treason” charges after telling supporters he received advice from the US.

Sokha founded CCHR in 2002, and Hun Sen yesterday suggested that he had attempted to conceal foreign influence in the NGO, telling a gathering of garment workers that CCHR “must close because they follow foreigners”.

“The Ministry of Interior should check, because they were created by foreigners, not Khmers,” he said.

“If it’s an international NGO, and they come to create it and ask our permission, it’s not an issue,” he continued. “But this one is [registered as] Khmer and was created by foreigners to do this and do that.”

CCHR is one of the most vocal NGOs in Cambodia, and has long been critical of the government in advocating for greater respect for human and civil rights. The NGO, which has also not hesitated to criticise the opposition in the past, released a statement yesterday afternoon, reiterating its independence as their “core value”.

“CCHR firmly believes that any independent and impartial investigation into CCHR would find no wrongdoing whatsoever on the part of the organization,” the statement reads, before calling on the government to “enter into a meaningful dialogue with CCHR representatives in relation to these allegations”.

Pol Lim, an Interior Ministry secretary of state, said officials would hold a meeting on the matter today. “Today is the weekend, and tomorrow they will come to research and check on [CCHR],” he said.

The prime minister’s announcement was met with strong criticism by civil society.

Former CCHR president and political analyst Ou Virak said a closure would have a “chilling effect” on civil society.

“CCHR was and continues to be one of the most principled organizations. We have called out human rights violations and concerns on both sides. When I was the president, the decisions made were always based on the universal principles of human rights and never on parties involved,” he said in a message.

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Cambodian Center for Human Rights staffers hold signs reading ‘Save Press Freedom Cambodia’ in solidarity with the Cambodia Daily newspaper, which closed earlier this year following a tax dispute. Photo supplied

“The chilling effect on civil society and grassroots groups would be far reaching,” he said, explaining this would create a “very very difficult work environment” for all civil society groups that received foreign funding, training or support of any kind.

NGOs have already found themselves facing increased scrutiny from the government since the Kingdom’s political situation began to worsen. CCHR was also among a handful of NGOs accused by Ministry of Interior lawyers of allegedly being complicit in the opposition’s purported attempt to topple the government.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, who himself worked for CCHR for a year, said yesterday that the closure would be justified.

“We don’t want any . . . foreign agencies to [meddle] with our internal issues,” he said, adding that NGOs should cooperate with the government to highlight problems, not blame the government. “We are looking for partners to improve, instead of producing fake reports.”

Asked why he joined CCHR, Siphan said that he wasn’t aware of their alleged affiliations. “At the time I was expelled from the CPP. I was sacked,” he said, adding that he had believed Sokha’s promise to stand up for Cambodian people.

Siphan went on to say that there were “a number” of NGOs with international consultants who were mere agents for foreign governments, but declined to name any.

Naly Pilorge, of rights organisation Licadho, expressed concern at the development. “We are shocked that the [prime minister] would order to close down a human rights organization. On what basis and why?” she said in a message.

“Regardless of who its founder is, we hope CCHR will continue to operate as normal as their team provides essential services to victims and other people in need,” she said.

Kingsley Abbott, senior legal adviser at the International Commission of Jurists, in an email condemned the premier’s remarks. “This new, targeted, focus on the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, by the Government should make it clear that the human rights and rule of law crisis gripping Cambodia is not showing any signs of abating and requires the urgent attention of the international community.”

Meanwhile, Sokha himself was questioned by Investigating Judge Ky Rithy at a police station in Tbong Khmum on Friday, which his lawyer said should have taken place at court instead.Lawyer Pheng Heng said questions mostly revolved around the video clip in which Sokha can be seen talking about receiving political training from the US. “He did not finish the questioning yet,” he said.

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