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They express concerns that the court is using vaguely-worded articles of the Criminal Code against human rights advocates in the country, which government spokesmen deny
PHNOM PENH--The United Nations’ human rights experts issued a statement sharply criticizing the Cambodian authorities over the conviction of union leader Rong Chhun, youth activist Sar Kanika and former opposition-party member Ton Nimol who were sentenced to prison and imposed fines on Aug. 18.
Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia said that the prison terms and heavy fines handed to these three activists are neither justified nor proportionate.
“I am extremely alarmed that the court convicted the three human rights defenders for acts that are protected by their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, rights guaranteed by Cambodian and international law," he said in the statement on Aug. 24.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced prominent union leader Rong Chhun to 24 months in prison, youth activist Sar Kanika and former opposition-party member Ton Nimol to 20 months in prison on charges of incitement. They also were each fined 2 million riels ($500) and ordered to jointly pay 400 million riels ($100,000) in damages to the Cambodia Border Committee as the plaintiff in the case.
Chhun, a representative of the Cambodian Watchdog Council and president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was apprehended after he led a team to inspect the land along the Cambodian Vietnamese border in July 2020 and alleged afterwards that irregularities during the negotiations between the two countries had caused Cambodians living along the border to lose land.
Kanika, a member of the youth group Khmer Thavrak, was arrested in August 2020 during a peaceful protest calling for Chhun’s release. Nimol, who was a Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) candidate in the 2017 commune elections, was arrested in October 2020 during a gathering in front of the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh.
In the UN statement issued on Aug. 24, Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, said that the prison terms and heavy fines handed to these three activists are neither justified nor proportionate.
Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, added that human rights defenders should never be arrested, detained or convicted for their efforts to protect the human rights of others.
“We are seriously concerned that the Cambodian government uses the vaguely-worded Articles 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code against ‘incitement to create felony’ to crack down on dissent and to stifle free expression,” she said.
The UN experts said they were also concerned about credible information received to the effect that 17 of the human rights defenders and activists currently in detention were charged or convicted under Articles 494 and 495.
“We are extremely worried that these two Articles are being used systematically to target human rights defenders,” the experts said. “We call on the Government to cease using the law to target individuals who are working to promote and protect the rights of others.”
On Aug. 24, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Eysan said that the verdict regarding the Rong Chhun's case was an independent decision of the court in accordance with the facts and the law.
Chhun has no position in border affairs, he said. "Why did he visit the border area to incite and inspire people along the border, causing unrest and affecting national security?" Eysan said in a press statement. The country belongs to all people but border affairs are the role and responsibilities of the government, which represents the Cambodian people, he added. Chhun, however, has been a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council International whose advocacy work has also included rights of poor farmers and development along the country’s borders.
Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan said on his Facebook page on Aug. 21 that the Cambodian court's verdict regarding Rong Chhun was based on facts and the legal entity in which the individual has committed an act contrary to Cambodian law, whose regulations must be enforced.
The top priority of the government is to maintain peace and national security, Siphan added.