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Little progress on rights: HRW

A young man is chased by police after an SL Garment factory demonstration turned violent in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey district
A young man is chased by police after an SL Garment factory demonstration turned violent in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey district in November last year. Pha Lina

Little progress on rights: HRW

Impunity, irregularities and unchecked violence were just a few among the litany of abuses laid at the feet of the Cambodian government by Human Rights Watch (HRW) yesterday as it released its 24th annual World Report summarising the status of human rights.

The report’s Cambodia chapter, almost universally critical in tone, listed what it characterised as the many missteps of the Cambodian government and also the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, among them the imprisonment of activists like Yorm Bopha, the unsolved murder of journalist Hang Serei Oudom and the violent crackdown on demonstrators in the wake of Cambodia’s flawed elections.

The assessment, as HRW deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said yesterday, was “pretty tough on Cambodia, as always”, and showed little improvement on the part of the government.

“And in fact, there has not been any significant progress in respect for human rights in Cambodia since last year’s annual report,” Robertson said in an email. “Impunity for abuses, land seizures, harassment and attacks against human rights defenders, abuses in drug detention centers are all still present in Cambodia – and the government has done little or nothing to address them.”

Impunity was a particular focus of the HRW report, which mentioned the case of ex-Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith, who is still at large after being convicted last year of shooting three women at a protest in 2012.

In addition to the unsolved killing of Oudom, the report also brings up the case of unionist Chea Vichea, whose murder – the anniversary of which is today – remains unsolved after 10 years. As the report notes, the two men wrongfully arrested for his shooting were finally exonerated last year after spending years in prison, but those responsible for the murder are still at large.

Sam Pracheameanith, chief cabinet member to the minister of justice, declined to comment yesterday on the cases mentioned in the HRW report, but maintained that the Justice Ministry was committed to passing long-awaited laws to “ensure the independence of the court, and to protect the rights and freedom of the people”.

Equal in prominence in the HRW report is a rundown of Cambodia’s flawed July elections and the National Election Committee’s failure to sufficiently investigate irregularities. Among other things, the report accuses the ruling party of controlling broadcast media, using state officials to campaign on its behalf and orchestrating “fraud and other irregularities” in the voter registration process.

The report also delved into the government’s violent response to the ensuing post-election unrest that saw journalists and demonstrators attacked, and at least one man killed near the Kbal Thnal overpass when police cracked down on a spontaneous expression of anger over a roadblock in the capital.

As the year wore on, the report stated, that response also applied to the garment worker wage protests that turned fatal when government forces opened fire on a crowd of striking SL garment factory workers in November.

“The most troubling aspect of Cambodia’s record in [2013] has to be the government’s use of excessive force against protesters in November and December, which of course then culminated in unit 911 [a special paratrooper unit] gunning down garment workers on January 3,” HRW’s Robertson said. “It appears the government has turned a page and is now prepared to authorize deadly violence to keep would-be protesters intimidated.”

Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, dismissed HRW’s longstanding criticism of the government as “their tradition”, and defended the government’s response to the protests.

“The people living in a democratic society must abide by the law,” he said, accusing the opposition of inciting protesters to “take the law into their own hands”.

“[The opposition] pushed people to block the road, so we had to take it back,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG

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