Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - US hits out on rights issues

US hits out on rights issues

US hits out on rights issues

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A protester speaks in October of the eviction of residents of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake.

The United States has registered sharp criticism of the Cambodian government in its annual human rights report, raising long-standing concerns about land rights, corruption and judicial independence.

Released on Friday in Washington, the US report covers 194 countries and spans more than 7,000 pages. The section on Cambodia stretches 42 pages and paints a grim picture of human rights in the Kingdom, calling rule of law weak and corruption “endemic”.

“Members of security forces committed arbitrary killings and acted with impunity. Detainees were abused, often to extract confessions, and prison conditions were harsh,” the report states.

“Human rights monitors reported arbitrary arrests and prolonged pretrial detention, underscoring a weak judiciary and denial of the right to a fair trial. Land disputes and forced evictions, sometimes violent, continued.”

The report depicts a two-tiered society in which the well-connected rarely face legal action and are able to strip state and private assets with impunity. The poor, meanwhile, have difficulty navigating the court system and have little recourse in the face of violations such as land-grabbing and unlawful detention.

With just 30 percent of the country’s 751 lawyers offering pro bono services, the US said, basic legal rights are inaccessible to most of the population.

Reports of beatings and forced confessions in police custody were common, with illiterate defendants sometimes forced to sign confessions they did not understand. Defamation cases against poor villagers and government critics continued, and more than half of all appeals cases took place without defendants present.

Forced relocations increased in 2010 compared to the previous year, the US said, amid “ineffective” work by the government’s Cadastral Commission and National Authority for Land Dispute Resolution.

There were no reports of politically motivated murders, though the Kingdom’s security forces were responsible for at least 12 extrajudicial killings last year, the US said, citing data from local rights group Adhoc.

The government did receive credit for its religious tolerance and its cooperation with development groups on prison and refugee issues. The report also noted the passage of the country’s long-awaited Anticorruption Law last year, though it said government officials “frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity”.

Past US rights reports have drawn criticism from Cambodian officials, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs calling the publication “a routine that has nothing to do with human rights reality in Cambodia” following the 2008 report. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that he had not yet seen the latest report, though he nonetheless dismissed its findings as “out of date”.

“Some issues are out of date – we’ve solved the problem already – and some issues, we can’t work 24 hours,” he said. The government, he said, is working “to build a culture of human rights respect through the law”.

US assistant secretary of state Michael Posner told reporters in Washington on Friday that growing restrictions on civil society organisations, of the sort now being considered in Cambodia with the government’s controversial draft NGO Law, are among the global human rights trends about which the US is most concerned.

“This week, for example, we’re in a diplomatic negotiation with the government of Cambodia, which is now considering adopting a new law to this effect, which would make it much more difficult for Cambodian human rights and other organisations to operate,” Posner said.

Restrictions on internet freedom and “discrimination against vulnerable groups” are the US’s other key global rights concerns for this year, he said.

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