HUMAN rights watchdog Licadho came under fire last week for its involvement in the
case of a group of Vietnamese garment workers, detained at the GT garment factory
in Phnom Penh against their will.
After police raided the factory on Feb 19 and released the Vietnamese, Licadho agreed
to provide food and shelter to the workers, who were illegal immigrants, allegedly
trafficked to Cambodia. At the time, the organization pointed out to the authorities
that it could not be responsible for the workers or making sure that they didn't
leave before court action could be taken against them.
On March 3, 26 workers were transferred to a new temporary accommodation in Sangkat
Psah Thmei 1. According to Licadho, the sangkat authorities stated that government
ministries were arranging documentation to send the workers back to Vietnam and informed
them that they were not allowed to leave the building they were lodged in.
However, 17 of the workers have since disappeared, and on April 5, Cambodia's largest
Khmer-language daily, Rasmei Kampuchea, printed an article charging that Licadho
"allowed the workers to escape" and accusing the organization of obstructing
the planned deportation of the workers.
Next day, the paper implied that Licadho should be held responsible before the law
for the disappearance of the Vietnamese workers.
Later, the organization received an anonymous telephone call, threatening a public
demonstration that would destroy its office.
Licadho has rejected all accusations.
"Licadho has nothing to do with the disappearance of the workers. It is the
fault of the authorities. We are an NGO and we have no lawful power to interfere
in government actions," said Licadho founder Kek Galabru.
Independent human rights workers point out that the disappearance of the workers
was a convenient case for the authorities to clamp down on an otherwise popular organization,
capitalizing on the Cambodian population's growing hatred towards the Vietnamese.
The strategy seems to have worked. Licadho workers are now privately criticized for
being too sympathetic towards Vietnamese.
Meanwhile, no charges have been brought against the factory owner, who detained the
workers. And human rights workers fear that the case against him will be weakened,
when the illegal immigrants are deported.
"It is a problem. These people should be sent safely home as soon as possible.
But then there will be nobody left to testify in the case against the factory owner,"
one human rights worker pointed out.