The Cambodian Permanent Mission to the UN Office in Geneva on Wednesday urged UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith to strictly observe the code of conduct and her office’s operations manual.
The call came after Smith voiced concerns on Tuesday over recent arrests of three environment activists and others on charges of incitement to create social chaos.
Smith said she had been closely following reports that seven different CSOs have been searched or informed of pending visits by the authorities since last week.
“The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are protected by international human rights norms and standards as well as by the Cambodian Constitution.
“I encourage Cambodian authorities to ensure that these rights are respected and protected and to create an environment in which individuals can exercise these rights.
“I urge that those arrested are promptly brought before a court of law and their due process rights are fully respected. I am following these events closely in Cambodia,” she had previously said.
In a press release, the Mission said it was disturbed by Smith’s personal view. It said Smith has never stressed that freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly carries with it special duties and responsibilities as stated by laws.
“The purposeful failure of this emphasis not only misleads the public but emboldens certain forces who readily exploit situations for their hidden agendas,” the release said.
The Mission went on to note that Cambodia cherishes freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in line with the law, and is deeply conscious that plurality of voices, including critical ones, matter in the development of the Kingdom.
However, contrary to the Mission’s position, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said it was not unusual for Smith to raise concerns over the human rights situation in Cambodia because it is her obligation and mandate as a UN special rapporteur.
He said Smith did not accuse police of human rights violation and merely raised the general principles that the government is obliged to respect and protect citizens’ freedom to exercise their rights freely and legally.
“That she urges police to send [alleged] offenders to court implies she supports and clearly understands the government’s action against those who commit offences in exercising their rights [beyond legal limits].
“Defendants are to be held accountable and argue their cases in court against police who have solid legal basis to press charge against them.
“The court is the only lawful means for the accused to defend themselves in a democratic society with the rule of law rather than protesting illegally to pressure the government and the judiciary – an independent body – to release or drop charges.
Since July, civil society groups have gathered in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and at Freedom Park to demand the release of Rong Chhun, a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC).
He was arrested on charges of incitement for claims that Cambodia had lost land to Vietnam because of border pole planting.
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun confirmed on Wednesday that 13 people, apart from Rong Chhun, had been arrested on charges of incitement. Six other people were educated and allowed to go free.
He said two others have also been arrested for creating a movement to oppose the government. One is Kea Sokhun who composed a satirical song that “insulted” the government.
The second is Pen Mom, who was arrested and sentenced by the Kampot Provincial Court on Wednesday to five years in prison on a charge of “plotting”.