Threats, intimidation and, in extreme cases, even murder were endangering freedom of expression in Cambodia and leaving human rights at the crossroads, activists and NGO representatives said during a round-table meeting yesterday.
The slaying of environmental activist Chut Wutty, the arrest of Beehive radio director Mam Sonando on secessionist charges and the imprisonment of the “Boeung Kak 13” were among the worst examples of a system becoming increasingly intolerant of those questioning it, participants at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights hosted forum said.
“The police force and courts are being exploited as a way of instilling fear and intimidation into the political dissidents,” CCHR president Ou Virak said.
“Having personally attended the trial of Mam Sonando, I found that there really is no case against him,” he said.
In contrast, rights abuses at the hands of officials were being brushed aside and rarely made it to court, Virak said.
According to analysis provided by the forum’s organisers, 15 human rights activists, land activists, politicians and policy reformers have been killed in suspicious circumstances since 1990, and 1,440 have been charged with a crime.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for the rights group Licadho, said the murders of Wutty and Ratanakkiri journalist Hang Serei Oudom, among other incidents, had not been properly dealt with by authorities.
“The government should consider these incidents hugely important,” he said. “Especially because Cambodia is now chair of ASEAN, and a democratic country where freedom of expression should be wide open for everyone.”
Yi Sok San, deputy director in charge of land affairs at the rights group Adhoc, said freedom of expression was also being stifled in the media – where it was of vital importance.
“We have an abundance of media such as newspapers, radios and TV, but how many of them reveal what’s really going on?” he said.
Boeung Kak representative Tep Vanny, one of 13 women sentenced to two and a half years in prison in May over a land protest but released in June, said residents fighting against eviction were considered thorns in the authorities’ side rather than being seen as having rights.
“Having inadequate freedom of expression is serious punishment for people like us,” she said. “But I will struggle till the last second of my life.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the organisers were trying to link separate issues as a way of attacking the government.
“The cases of Chut Wutty, the Boeung Kak women and Mam Sonando are individual issues. They can’t represent the freedom of expression as a whole nationwide,” he said.
Om Yentieng, the senior minister in charge of human rights affairs, could not be reached for comment.
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]