UN human rights experts have expressed concern about what they call an escalating trend of silencing political opinion, saying the government has used criminal law to deny former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members’ the rights to expression and to hold gatherings.
However, senior government officials say the comments fail to take into account the Kingdom’s legal mechanisms.
In a press release issued on Wednesday, Rhona Smith, the UN’s independent Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, and David Kaye, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, raised their concerns over an escalating trend by the government to suppress dissenting opinions in what they said appears to be an attempt to intimidate or silence political opinion.
The special rapporteurs said they had received information that more than 140 members of the Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP have been summoned or detained by authorities in relation to their attendance at gatherings and over comments made in support of CNRP president Kem Sokha and “acting president” Sam Rainsy.
“We are concerned about the use of criminal law to target free speech, both offline and online. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression."
“This right is one of the essential foundations of a democratic and just society. Restrictions on freedom of expression must be limited and strictly defined, and statements of support for political leaders do not fall within such permitted limitations,” Smith and Kaye’s press release said.
The pair said restrictions must be based on law and supported by legitimate grounds, such as protecting public order or national security.
They said the summonses issued to many of the former CNRP members related to alleged violations of the Supreme Court’s verdict on the dissolution of the party on November 16, 2017, without specifying the nature of the alleged violations.
Defence lawyers were not allowed to make copies of any of the case files, they said, in order to prepare an adequate defence.
Smith and Kaye said Cambodia has undeniably become a one-party state ruled by the Cambodian People’s Party after the main opposition party, and the only one in the National Assembly, was dissolved.
They called on the government to reverse the current downward trend in the enjoyment of political rights and fundamental freedoms.
“It is time for the government to lead a change of the political culture to one of dialogue – with a focus on issues rather than people – as a way to move ahead and to create a solid basis for durable peace, sustainable development and the enjoyment of all human rights,” they said.
But Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin responded by saying their comments only took into account the freedoms of the CNRP members and did not consider the country’s legal mechanisms.
Malin said supporting the former CNRP officials’ gatherings amounted to supporting an illegal movement and convicted men.
“According to Cambodia’s legal principles, all forms of activity, not only on Facebook but gatherings of any form, with ill intentions in support of an illegal movement or anyone who has been convicted, is against the law and the authorities must take legal action,” Malin said.
Rights group Adhoc spokesman Soeng Sen Karuna said Cambodia has ratified conventions recognising many international laws and human rights, including political rights, which allow citizens to participate in politics.
He claimed that although their party had been dissolved, CNRP members’ rights had not been dissolved.
“Their rights still exist to participate in political activity. So they can act in accordance with the law and rights recognised by the Cambodian government ever since we adopted a multi-party liberal democracy and recognised human rights in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements,” Sen Karuna said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said activities related to the CNRP are illegal because any party dissolved by the court is no longer a political party.
“There are a lot of opposition parties who are members of the Supreme Consultation Forum. Members of the party that was dissolved by the court cannot carry out activities for five years,” he said.
Siphan said the two special rapporteurs should remember that Prime Minister Hun Sen had provided an opportunity for former CNRP members to request political rehabilitation.