With the screws tightening on Adhoc, pro-government NGOs are calling for the government to use the newly enacted NGO Law to punish the rights group and other organisations caught up in the Kem Sokha mistress scandal using a provision that can be used to shut down civil society groups.
The Cambodian Federation for Human Rights and Development (CFHRAD) and the Association of Youth for State Reform (AYFSR) argue that Adhoc and a UN staffer violated Article 24 of the controversial Law on Non-Government Organisations and Associations (LANGO), which stipulates NGOs should be politically “neutral”.
Both issued statements on April 23 after the purported mistress of Kem Sokha accused several civil society workers of telling her to deny the affair to police investigating the scandal.
The Cambodian Human Rights Committee, an official government body, has also echoed the calls to take “strict legal action”.
In the lead up to the law’s passing, civil society groups repeatedly warned that the government would use it as a weapon.
Yesterday, four current Adhoc members were charged with “bribing a witness” in relation to the case, which observers say is being used by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to crush its political opponents and intimidate civil society.
A CNRP councillor is also facing similar charges while a former Adhoc employee, who is now an election official, and a UN human rights staffer have been charged as accomplices.
The probe so far has been spearheaded by the Kingdom’s Anti-Corruption Unit.
“My fear is that their objective is to shut down Adhoc,” long-time civil society lawyer Billy Tai said yesterday, noting the NGO’s extensive reach and clout in Cambodia.
Tai said the two pro-government NGOs were setting the stage for the government to use the LANGO punitively for the first time.
“By the time they [the government] muddy the water enough, they will have their choice [of legal rationales], whether corruption or political neutrality. They have a whole host of things they can utilise,” he said.
Reached yesterday, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan confirmed the municipal court would examine whether the groups’ violated any articles of the NGO Law.
“We cannot jump to the conclusion yet that they’ve committed wrong, there’s not been a trial,” Eysan said.
The AYFSR statement claims that Adhoc and UN members helped Sokha attempt to cover up the event, thus violating the LANGO clause that dictates groups “shall maintain their neutrality towards political parties”.
It demands punishment “with a view to the protection of honour of honest organisations in Cambodia as well as the promotion of social honesty”.
Making the same case to use LANGO, passed by CPP lawmakers despite widespread condemnation in July last year, CFHRAD cites the law’s Chapter 7, concerning penalties, which empowers the Interior Ministry to warn, suspend and deregister groups.
Speaking yesterday, the heads of both groups denied the statements were released on government orders.
“We work independently from the government,” said CFHRAD president Thao Veansa, who is identified as an assistant to the Council of Ministers in documents online.
Veansa said his group worked with the cabinet to help draft LANGO, which was necessary to stop foreign-funded groups from sparking incitement. “By having this law, [those groups] will act properly.”
Pol Seyha, head of AYFSR, also denied that the group was channelling the government’s will.
“We do not support any parties,” he said, adding that his NGO worked with youth, promoting “social work and leadership”.
Tai, the human rights lawyer, said it was an established trend for CPP-aligned groups to stay dormant until their voice was needed to lend credence to a government position.
CFHRAD – which monitored the 2013 election – has on several occasions denounced civil society for criticising the government.
In 2012, it lashed out at groups for condemning the imprisonment of long-term opposition figure Mam Sonando, saying it was “shocked” at the “brainless statements by the so-called NGOs”, which it dubbed “foreign agent organisations”.
Saying he was troubled by the LANGO threat, Koul Panha, head of governmental and electoral watchdog Comfrel, yesterday pointed to the government’s double standards when it came to freedom of expression.
“If police, military or even the judiciary itself carry out political activities for the ruling party against other parties, they say that is their political right, including NGOs associated with the government,” Pahna said.
“But some independent NGOs are really under threat, they say ‘you have no rights, you should be politically neutral’.”
Calling LANGO a “loaded gun pointed at the head of Cambodian civil society”, Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson urged the international community to step up before the government “pulls the trigger” on Adhoc.
“ADHOC that has been consistently critical of the government is precisely the sort of organization that PM Hun Sen would love to get rid of,” Robertson said, via email.
“That would be a huge tragedy for the thousands of victims of human rights abuses that ADHOC has helped, and continues to assist, all over the country.”
Adhoc yesterday declined to comment for this article.