Cambodia’s government on Wednesday launched a probe into a leading human rights organization, days after Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to shut it down, prompting an outcry from groups who called the move further evidence of the country’s slide into dictatorship ahead of elections next year.
Deputy director-general of the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Administration Chhim Kan told government-aligned Fresh News that his ministry had initiated a “study and investigation” into the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)—a rights group cofounded by opposition leader Kem Sokha, who is currently in pretrial detention facing charges of treason.
The ministry “has yet to decide CCHR’s fate,” Chhim Kan said, adding that expert officials are awaiting the outcome of the investigation to determine how to proceed.
Over the weekend, Hun Sen said that the group “will have to be shut down” because Kem Sokha “followed foreigners to create the center in Cambodia,” noting that “this is the same guy who incited people to topple the government.”
In response to Hun Sen’s comments, CCHR issued a statement affirming its “non-partisanship” and “independence from all political parties,” and said any independent and impartial investigation into its activities would “find no wrongdoing whatsoever.”
Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)—charges the U.S. embassy has rejected. Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Nov. 16 ruled that his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) be dissolved for its part in the plot, essentially eliminating Hun Sen’s competition ahead of a general election scheduled for July 2018.
Hun Sen’s government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over its actions targeting the CNRP, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations.
Local and international organizations suggested that the investigation into CCHR could lead to a wider shut down of NGOs in Cambodia, and decried it as arbitrary and lacking legal basis.
Toronto-based IFEX, a global network of groups promoting free expression that counts CCHR as a member, “strongly and unequivocally” condemned Hun Sen’s call for an investigation into the organization following “the politically motivated” dissolution of the CNRP and arrest of Kem Sokha.
“The closure of such a principled and dedicated group as CCHR would be devastating for the safeguarding of Cambodians’ rights at a time when they are under increasing threat, and would irrevocably add to the climate of censorship that has taken hold,” said IFEX executive director Annie Game.
“Considered alongside other important voices that have been silenced, such a brazen action would signal to the world that Cambodia’s stated support for free expression and association is an empty platitude.”
IFEX urged the government to drop its “baseless” investigation into CCHR, in accordance with protections for freedom of expression and association enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution, and called on the international community, including donors and trade partners, to pressure Cambodia over the case.
IFEX’s statement echoed earlier concerns over Hun Sen’s comments from the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), which said in a post on its Facebook page over the weekend that his attacks on the CCHR constituted “further evidence of Cambodia’s continued slide deeper into dictatorship.”
In the post, APHR chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament, said the push to shut down the group “is the ruthless action of a dictator, and it will perpetuate widespread fear among civil society.”
He called on authorities to “immediately reverse course and allow CCHR to continue its important work free from threats and intimidation,” adding that international partners should worry about the implications for productive engagement and sustainable development in Cambodia, given the country’s shrinking civic space.
Soeung Sen Karona, spokesperson for local rights group ADHOC, told RFA Wednesday that if authorities are going to conduct an investigation into the CCHR, it must be done transparently, instead of simply as a response to Hun Sen’s comments.
He added that the Ministry of the Interior must look into the benefits that CCHR has provided to society, calling the group an “unequivocal partner for strengthening respect of human rights and social justice in Cambodia.”
“We hope that what Hun Sen has said are simply his remarks and that those who conduct the [investigation]will do so in a professional manner,” he said.
“Should they fail to find any [evidence]backing up [Hun Sen’s] claim, such a crucial institution should be maintained so that it can further contribute to helping society and the nation in accordance with the government’s goal of respecting human rights and democracy.”
Since late August, the government has also expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suspended some 20 radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and forced the closure of the English-language Cambodia Daily with a hefty tax bill.
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, some 20 CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.
Last month, a group of 55 nongovernmental organizations said a “severe deterioration in the state of human rights and democracy” in Cambodia required a reconvening of the Paris Peace Conference, which ended conflict in the nation in 1991 and led to the U.N.’s administration of its government during its transition to a system of democratic elections.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.