Cambodian officials have dismissed a joint letter by five UN human rights experts expressing concerns that the ongoing pre-trial detention of seven human rights activists appears to be a violation of their rights and freedoms.

In the letter dated June 10 and addressed to the Cambodian government, they said the activists appear to have been arbitrarily detained and deprived of their liberty in response to legitimate and peaceful work carried out in the defence of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.

The UN rights experts include Vitit Muntarbhorn, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia; Mary Lawlor, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Miriam Estrada-Castillo, vice-chair of the working group on arbitrary detention; Irene Khan, special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression; and Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Chin Malin, the Cambodian Human Rights Committee (CHRC) vice-president and Ministry of Justice secretary of state, told The Post on August 9 that the statements by the UN experts are based on reports written by groups politically opposed to Cambodian government.

They are not based on facts and have no solid legal basis in Cambodian law, he said.

“The statement did not analyse whether their activities were illegal or a crime in accordance with the laws of Cambodia. We only enforce the existing laws and must therefore prosecute [law-breaking] activists, but they accuse us of violating their rights,” Malin said.

He said authorities have a clear basis for charging the activists from the available evidence and testimony gathered during the investigation, which confirmed that their activities were criminal.

“The only legal way to protect these detainees is to find strong legal evidence and testimony to defend them against the charges and to participate in the court proceedings.

“Therefore, statements by outside experts have no solid legal basis and lack authority. Such accusations can have no impact on the court proceedings of a democratic society,” Malin said.

In the letter, the five UN human rights experts also expressed concerns that the seven human rights activists – Chhoeun Daravy, Hun Vannak, Koet Saray, Tha Lavy, Eng Malai, Muong Sopheak and Mean Prommony – have already been denied bail on several occasions, despite the fact that they have spent almost 10 months in pre-trial detention.

“The continued deprivation of their liberty is a direct violation of the right to due process under international human rights law, as established in Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” they said.

They also expressed serious concerns about reports that the authorities in Cambodia are targeting, threatening and criminalising human rights defenders in an attempt to incite fear among those working to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Their letter said the seven activists were arbitrarily arrested between August and September 2020, in connection with their planning to participate in protests calling for the release of imprisoned human rights defenders and Khmer Thavrak colleagues. All seven were subsequently charged with incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest.

Cambodia’s Permanent Mission to the UN Office at Geneva said in a letter dated July 28 that the concerns about the judicial proceedings against the seven accused do not reflect the reality on the ground.

The permanent mission noted that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has already held two public hearings on the case of the seven accused on December 30 last year and February 16 this year.

It said the municipal court always sets its hearing dates continuously due to the outbreak of Covid-19, which led to the lockdown of the capital and delay of the trial at the request of the prison general department. The hearings have been postponed several times.

In order to protect the lives of all of the detainees in the prison from the Covid-19 pandemic, lawyers and family members have not been permitted to meet the detainees in the prison and the policy was applied to all without any discrimination, it said.