Cambodia must end harassment of human rights defenders

Monday, July 25, 2016
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The sun sets over Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. PHOTO: Dmitry A. Mottl / CC BY-SA 4.0

CJFE and the undersigned members of IFEX, the global network of organizations dedicated to defending and promoting freedom of expression, are deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating conditions for civil society in Cambodia. The recent murder in suspicious circumstances of political commentator and social researcher Kem Ley, following as it does on waves of arrests and harassment of Cambodian human rights defenders for exercising their right to freely express their opinions and peacefully protest, is a new escalation in an already dangerously charged atmosphere. We call on the Cambodian government to take immediate steps to protect human rights defenders and enable their rights to freely participate in and contribute to Cambodian democracy.

Kem Ley was a respected political voice in Cambodia who regularly analyzed Cambodian politics and social issues on the radio and in the press. Kem Ley was also involved in grassroots advocacy, and in 2014 founded the Khmer for Khmer advocacy group with the aim of promoting multi-party, liberal democracy. Right before his death, Kem Ley had commented extensively in the media on a recent report on the business interests of Cambodia’s ruling family released by the NGO Global Witness.

Given these facts, we call for an immediate, transparent and impartial investigation into the circumstances of the killing of Kem Ley, with attention to the possibility of masterminds beyond the apprehended suspect. Additionally, we urge the Cambodian government to seek out expert external assistance to ensure that the investigation can be carried out effectively and independently.

We further call for the Cambodian authorities to immediately release ADHOC staff Ny Sokha, Nay Vanda, Yi Soksan, and Lim Mony, as well as election official Ny Chakrya, who have been detained on politically motivated grounds since 28 April 2016. We call for an end to the arrests of so-called ‘Black Monday’ protestors, at least 21 of whom have been arrested and temporarily detained while protesting for the release of the aforementioned human rights defenders. Lastly, we urge the Cambodian People’s Party to withdraw their pending defamation case against prominent political analyst Ou Virak.

We are conscious that Cambodia is experiencing increased political tensions in the lead up to the next round of local and national elections in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Yet we must emphasize that while political turmoil often puts pressure on human rights, continued free and open debate amongst citizens and civil society is the core means by which democratic societies are able to navigate such tensions peacefully. The bribery charges brought against Ny Chakrya and the four ADHOC staff, along with their continued detention, are plainly in retaliation for their work to promote human rights in Cambodia. The Cambodian People’s Party decision to pursue legal action against Ou Virak simply for questioning the motives of their suits against the political opposition is likewise clearly retaliatory, while the arrest ‘Black Monday’ protestors for taking part in peaceful protests or for the color of their clothing is legally insupportable, under both Cambodian and international law.

Characterizing peaceful public protest and criticism of the government as ‘open rebellion’, in the recent words of government spokesperson Phay Siphan, is a dangerous dismissal of the democratic rights of Cambodians and fuels, more than allays, social tension. It is part of a trend of “renewed threats, judicial proceedings and even physical beatings of members of the opposition” that the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia has previously described as bringing Cambodia to a “dangerous tipping point”. The murder of Kem Ley since the rapporteur’s statement threatens to tip this balance if not immediately and thoroughly addressed.

We therefore call on the Cambodian government to:

  • Support an immediate, transparent and impartial investigation of Kem Ley’s death, including investigation of possible masterminds beyond the apprehended suspect;
  • Seek out expert external assistance to ensure the effectiveness and independence of the investigation into Kem Ley’s death;
  • Stop arresting citizens participating in ‘Black Monday’ protests, and recognize their right to peacefully protest;
  • Withdraw the defamation complaint brought by the Cambodian People’s Party against Ou Virak;
  • Review national legislation such as the Penal Code and law on Associations and Non-Government Organizations to remove vague and overly broad limitations on free expression, and ensure compatibility with international treaties to which Cambodia is a signatory;
  • Refrain from exercising political control over the judiciary in pursuit of the judicial harassment of human rights defenders.

We firmly believe the Cambodian public’s best interests are served when the party in power engages with and debates opposing political and social views, not when it silences them or permits them to be violently silenced. The law must be used to enable safe access by citizens to speak out in civil space, not be misused to criminalize peaceful protest and harass those who criticize the government.


Adil Soz - International Foundation for Protection of Freedom of Speech
Afghanistan Journalists Center
Albanian Media Institute
Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain
Association of Caribbean Media Workers
Bytes for All
Cambodian Center for Human Rights
Cambodian Centre for Independent Media
Canadian Journalists for Free Expression
Center for Independent Journalism - Romania
Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility
Foro de Periodismo Argentino
Foundation for Press Freedom - FLIP
Freedom Forum
Freedom House
Fundamedios - Andean Foundation for Media Observation and Study
Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda
Independent Journalism Center - Moldova
Index on Censorship
Institute for the Studies on Free Flow of Information
Journaliste en danger
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance
Media Watch
National Union of Somali Journalists
Pacific Freedom Forum
Pacific Islands News Association
Pakistan Press Foundation
Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms - MADA
PEN American Center
PEN International
Public Association "Journalists"
Southeast Asian Press Alliance
South East European Network for Professionalization of Media
Vigilance pour la Démocratie et l’État Civique

This letter of concern was sent to:

His Excellency Chum Bun Rong, Ambassador of the Royal Embassy of Cambodia
Mr Philip Calvert, Ambassador of Canada to the Kingdom of Cambodia;
The Honourable Stéphane Dion, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs

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