Cambodia: Civil Society Organizations Call for the Release of 12 Land Rights Defenders Imprisoned for Exercising Their Fundamental Freedoms | Joint Statement

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30 civil society organizations joined in advance of International Women’s day, to call for the immediate release of 12 Boeung Kak Lake land and housing rights activists imprisoned since May 2012 for exercising internationally protected rights to expression, assembly, association and dissent. The joint statement is available in Khmer and English.

Joint Statement

Civil Society Organizations call for the release of 12 land rights defenders imprisoned for exercising their fundamental freedoms

March 6, 2015 – Ahead of the International Women’s Day on March 8th, we, the undersigned civil society organizations, call for the immediate release of Boeung Kak Lake (“BKL”) activists Tep Vanny, Nget Khun, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha, Phan Chhunreth, Bo Chhorvy, Nong Sreng, Heng Pich, Im Srey Touch, Phoung Sopheap; of Buddhist monk, Venerable Seung Hai; and of housing rights defender Ly Seav Minh. All 12 have been unlawfully deprived of their liberty for exercising their fundamental freedoms in relation to long-term land disputes in the Boeung Kak area of Phnom Penh.

On 10 November 2014, Nget Khun, Tep Vanny, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha, Phan Chhunreth, Bo Chhorvy, and Nong Sreng were arrested, charged with obstructing public traffic, tried and convicted within 36 hours, receiving a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a US$500 fine.1 The seven women had been protesting, calling on the authorities to take action to remedy flooding in their community. The area has suffered flooding problems since 2008, when the lake was filled with sand by the Shukaku Inc Company. A further three women and a monk faced similar treatment the following day, detained while peacefully protesting outside the courthouse for the release of their fellow activists and hastily convicted of obstructing public officials. On 26 January 2015, whilst granting minor reductions of sentence to the defendants, the Court of Appeal upheld their convictions, which were handed down in proceedings that did not meet fair trial standards.2

On 18 November 2014, Ms. Ly Seav Minh was arrested along with her father Mr. Ly Srea Kheng in the context of a land dispute with the Khun Sear Import Export Company after they refused to vacate a plot of land in the Boeung Kak 1 area. The family has suffered death threats, violent attacks and intimidation. Mr. Kheng was bailed on December 5, but bail was denied to Ms. Minh on 5 January on the grounds that it was necessary to prevent the commission of further crimes, the destruction of evidence or threats against witnesses, without explaining why such risks were applicable to her case.3 She is charged with using violence against a possessor in good faith of an immovable property. While she has been in provisional detention since then, the hearing for her case is not yet scheduled.

According to the Constitution, Cambodia “shall recognize and respect human rights as stipulated in the United Nations Charter, the covenants and conventions related to human rights, women’s rights and children’s rights.” The Constitution also enshrines the independence of the judiciary and defines its function as being to “guarantee and uphold impartiality and protect the rights and freedoms of the citizens.” Moreover, the Constitutional Council of Cambodia has stated that “international conventions that Cambodia has recognized” form part of the law to which trial judges must adhere.

None of these protections were guaranteed to the 12 detainees, who have been jailed for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Eleven of the 12 defenders are women. As the recently adopted United Nations General Assembly resolution on women human rights defenders testifies, women who work to defend human rights face risks and challenges that require specific attention and protection.4 International Women’s Day, held this week, provides the perfect occasion for this government to garner international credibility by affirming the important and legitimate role of human rights defenders, especially women defenders, in the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Cambodia.

It is high time for the government to demonstrate its genuine commitment to human rights, as recently pledged to the international community during the last Universal Periodic Review in the UN Human Rights Council in 2014 and ahead of the second review of Cambodia before the UN Human Rights Committee, due this month on March 17 and 18. The reluctance of the government to protect human rights defenders, and moreover its active role in restricting their rights to promote and strive for the protection and realization of human rights represents a breach of the state’s obligations that cannot be tolerated anymore. In addition to ending the use of courts to harass activists and human rights defenders, both local and national authorities should take serious steps to resolve the underlying land disputes and reach solutions that respect the rights of all parties, rather than silencing the voices of vulnerable and marginalised citizens and further stimulating conflicts.

We, the civil society groups listed below, call for the immediate release of all 12 detainees, and for all charges against them to be dropped. We will be collecting messages from the public to send to the detainees once a month. We will continue to campaign for their rights until all 12 are released.

Free the 12!