The trouble for the “Adhoc 5” started after Khom Chandaraty walked into the human rights group’s office on the evening of March 9, 2016, where she informed staffers there that she had been falsely accused of being then-CNRP vice president Kem Sokha’s mistress.
A month later, Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutor Seang Sok questioned the hairdresser for around five hours, only to emerge from the courtroom to make a startling revelation.
“She answered in front of me and admitted that the voice in the conversation between her and Kem Sokha is really her voice,” he said, referring to purported audio recordings of Sokha and Chandaraty.
Little is known of what happened in the interim, but this single apparent reversal from Chandaraty unleashed a whirlwind of legal ramifications that not only saw the Adhoc 5 tossed in jail on what many consider trumped-up charges of bribery, but have also reverberated throughout the human rights community over the last year to chilling effect.
Yesterday, a Phnom Penh investigating judge ruled to extend the pre-trial detention of Adhoc staffers Lim Mony, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan and Nay Vanda, and ex-staffer and National Election Committee deputy secretary-general Ny Charkya. As of today, the five have already been held without trial for a full year.
Explaining his decision to extend the group’s detention by up to six more months, investigating judge Theam Chanpiseth yesterdaytold the five and their lawyers that more time was needed to question witnesses and further investigate the case, despite the fact that only one witness has been interrogated by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court since last October.
Yesterday’s extension is the last one allowed under the law, and after the six months are up, the court must either take the case to trial or release the five.
But the case has grown beyond the five, exposing new risks for rights workers in the Kingdom, chief among them the apparent ubiquity of surveillance and even phone tapping that many rights workers believe played a part in the five’s arrest and prosecution. Dealing with increased surveillance and online hacking is now part and parcel of the daily functioning of the Kingdom’s NGOs.
For Adhoc, the four staffers in Prey Sar were senior members of the group’s human rights monitoring and investigative teams, and their continued detention has dealt a serious blow to the NGO’s functioning, said Adhoc president Thun Saray. “By removing these staffers from the organisation, unexpectedly and all at once, needless to say, had serious repercussions for ADHOC,” he said, via email.
Saray has been holed up in Canada ever since Anti-Corruption Unit head Om Yentieng, who spearheaded the investigation into the Adhoc 5 along with counter-terrorism police, threatened him with criminal proceedings if he attempted to “fight back”.
One of the oldest NGOs in Cambodia, Adhoc is known for its critical and poignant reports, statements and press briefings on illegal land grabs, human trafficking and natural resource exploitation.
But the arrests of their employees had collateral damage beyond the organisation.
NGO colleagues of the five – who have long worked closely with other human rights NGOs – have been softening their stances and muting their criticisms due to what Saray called a “chilling effect on civil society”.
“The consequence was an emergence of a culture of self-censorship, to which also ADHOC submitted,” he said. “ADHOC completely disappeared from the public eye, in hopes that this positively impacted the development of the case.”
While its provincial coordinators have continued their work unabated, the group has not released a major report in the last year and only recently started speaking to the media on the staffers’ legal struggle.
Saray’s concerns were shared by Wan Hea-Lee, representative of OHCHR in Cambodia, who said the arrests had created tension for civil society groups.
“NGOs are more cautious and very concerned, and those NGO leaders that have faced threats would be right to be fearful,” she said.
However, she pointed out that the wider Cambodian civil society was still strong and continued to engage citizens and ensure their human rights were upheld.
Before the Adhoc case, the Law on NGOs and Associations (LANGO), which passed in 2015, was viewed as the tool by which the government would most likely crack down on civil society.
But labour advocate Moeun Tola said the Adhoc case illustrated that a similar sense of anxiety can be created without even as much as a mention of LANGO.
The fear of imprisonment, Tola said, has forced NGOs to rely more on online awareness-raising campaigns rather than the on-the-ground demonstrations of the past.
“People know that there will be a violent crackdown on protests and they do not want to become victims,” he added.
Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy at rights group Licadho, said the work of advocacy groups had never been easy in Cambodia, but the current situation represented something of a nadir for the community. However, she said she was hopeful that civil society is in a phase of evolution that will see them emerge just as resilient.
Pilorge said that fear of intrusive surveillance – be it digital or physical - was nothing new, but that the Adhoc case had necessitated a drastic change of course.
“The difference now, and last year, is the threats, accusations, the charges and arrests, the monitoring, the surveillance – it is on a daily basis,” she said in an interview. “You open the newspaper or hear the radio, it is happening every day.”
Pilorge said it was imperative that NGOs ensure that their employees understand the ramifications of increased surveillance and take pre-emptive measures to mitigate the situation – pointing out the trend was not unique to Cambodia, but a global trend.
She said Licadho had instructed senior employees to get malware detection software, use encrypted messaging and call applications, and set up a buddy system in which potentially vulnerable staffers are paired up, keeping each other informed of their whereabouts, movements and activities at all times. Other organisations, Pilorge said, would be smart to do the same.
“Our role as civil society organisations is to now keep up with this technology. And to normalise security, whether it is digital, physical or legal, and to integrate it in the normal operation of the NGO,” she said.
For the government’s part, the case was a straightforward implementation of – in the state’s well-worn phrasing – the “rule of law”. Government officials at all levels have consistently pushed back at any criticism relating to the case by insisting that the five had broken the law and the courts were only following their normal procedures.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday continued to hold that line, dismissing any claims that the case was political or that it had increased disquiet among NGOs. “Those who violate the law are afraid of the law. A normal individual who respects the law has nothing to be afraid of,” he said.
He reiterated that the government had no involvement in the criminal proceedings, instead blaming the detainees for playing politics to benefit themselves.
However, Human Rights Watch’s Phil Robertson said the Cambodian government had succeeded in getting NGOs to keep their “heads down and their mouths shut”, and were now fearful of being the next target of the administration’s ire.
“When an experienced, high profile organization like ADHOC, which has strong allies in Cambodia and overseas, is laid low by the government, the other groups all look around to see who might be next,” he said in an email.
“That has a particularly chilling effect on the willingness of groups to take risks, to investigate and expose wrong-doing by influential people, and to stand up for communities losing their rights.”