Impunity, inadequate rule of law and serious shortcomings in the court system continued to cause a systemic lack of protection for human rights. Forced evictions, carried out with the direct involvement or complicity of government authorities, further impoverished thousands of marginalized Cambodians. Human rights defenders and community activists defending land and natural resources were imprisoned on baseless charges. Freedom of expression and assembly were restricted.
In October, the Asian Development Bank warned that 2 million Cambodians may have slipped below the poverty line as the cost of food, fuel and other commodities rose amid the global financial crisis. This was in addition to the 4.5 million, around a third of the population, already living in poverty.
In July, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won National Assembly elections. The opposition had been weakened by internal and external political strife, and intimidation of voters, journalists and activists.
In September, the UN Human Rights Council replaced the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Human Rights in Cambodia with a Special Rapporteur of the Council for one year, retaining the mandate’s functions. The mandate holder, Professor Yash Ghai, resigned deploring the government’s refusal to co-operate with him.
In July, UNESCO listed the Preah Vihear Temple near the Thai border as a World Heritage Site. A territorial dispute with Thailand followed over ownership of land adjacent to the temple. Tension was periodically high as thousands of troops from both sides mobilized in the area. In October, two Cambodian soldiers were shot dead.
"Nine journalists have been killed since 1994 – to date no-one has been brought to justice."
Forced evictions continued in the wake of land disputes, land grabs, and agro-industrial and urban redevelopment projects. Thousands of forcibly evicted people did not receive an effective remedy, including restitution of housing, land or property. During the year, at least 27 forced evictions affected some 23,000 people. The government denied that forced evictions had taken place. The criminal justice system was increasingly used by the rich and powerful to silence those protecting their right to adequate housing and Indigenous Peoples protecting their land rights and way of life. Around 150 land activists and affected people were arrested during the year, many of them facing prosecution on spurious criminal charges.
- Over 4,000 Phnom Penh families living around Boeung Kak Lake faced displacement as the lake was turned into a landfill site. Many of those affected lived in poverty in basic housing. Residents were given no notice before the landfill began on 26 August. Threats from local authorities and company workers against protesters were widespread.
Freedom of expression
Journalist Khim Sambor and his son were killed on 11 July during the election campaign. The killings followed an article by Khim Sambor in the opposition affiliated newspaper Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience) alleging serious illegal actions by an unnamed senior government official. The killing spread fear among journalists. Nine journalists have been killed since 1994 – to date no-one has been brought to justice.
In the pre-election period, authorities closed down an independent radio station for allowing airtime to opposition parties, and the editor of Moneaksekar Khmer (Khmer Conscience) was briefly detained for reporting on a speech by the main opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
The Supreme Court heard the appeal of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun on 31 December and decided to send the case back to the Appeal Court for reinvestigation and to release the two men on bail. They had been convicted of the 2004 killing of union leader Chea Vichea. Both had alibis for the time of the killing.
In September, a Phnom Penh Court judge confirmed that the investigation into the 2007 killing of union leader Hy Vuthy had been closed due to lack of evidence.
In April, an International Labour Organization factfinding mission to assess the progress of an investigation by authorities into the killing of three trade unionists concluded that the lack of an independent judiciary was a key factor behind the government’s failure to stem violence and attacks against union members.
Breaking a cycle of impunity, five former Khmer Rouge soldiers were tried for their role in the 1996 abduction and killing of a British de-miner and his interpreter. Four of them were convicted and sentenced to long prison terms.
Detention without trial
Police in Phnom Penh increased night-time raids, arbitrarily arresting sex workers, homeless people and beggars. According to victims and witnesses, sex workers were routinely rounded up and forced – often with violence or threats – into trucks. Many arrests violated Cambodia’s Criminal Procedure Code and international law. Some detainees were transferred to “education” or “rehabilitation” centres run by the municipal Social Affairs Department, where at least three detainees had been beaten to death, and women had been gang-raped by guards. The two centres remained operational at the end of the year, but the government issued assurances that those staying there did so voluntarily.
Several pre-trial hearings were held at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC, the Khmer Rouge tribunal). However the first trial to take place, that of Kaing Guek Eav (also known as Duch), was postponed till 2009 following a decision by co-prosecutors to seek a broader indictment.
Amid continued corruption allegations both the UN and Cambodian sides of the Court agreed to establish an anti-corruption programme. This led a number of Cambodian staff to report they had to pay kickbacks to secure their jobs.
In September, a transgender woman submitted the first complaint to the ECCC about gender-related abuse under the Khmer Rouge, including sexual violence in the form of gang rape in detention, and forced marriage.
By year’s end, the ECCC’s Victims Unit had received over 1,100 civil party applications, 34 of which had been accepted, and about 1,700 complaints from victims.
Legal, constitutional or institutionaldevelopments
The new criminal code, which took 14 years to draft, was not passed; at the end of the year it was being reviewed by the Council of Ministers.
The anti-corruption law was not passed despite being a high priority for Cambodia’s international donors. In May, a coalition of over 40 NGOs presented a petition signed and thumb-printed by over a million Cambodians calling on the National Assembly to adopt the law and take other steps to curb corruption.
In September, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated his intention to ensure a law on associations was passed, partly in order to increase control over NGO funding and objectives. NGOs countrywide expressed serious concern that the law would place further restrictions on their activities.
A new anti-trafficking law, adopted in March 2008, was criticized for focusing on the arrest and detention of sex workers instead of traffickers.
Amnesty International visits
Amnesty International visited Cambodia in February/March and October.
Amnesty International reportsCambodia: Release Scapegoats for Labor Leader’s Murder (22 January 2008)
Cambodia: Rights Razed: Forced evictions in Cambodia (11 February 2008)
Cambodia: Ignoring the rights of Indigenous Peoples (1 June 2008)
Cambodia: A risky business – defending the right to housing (26 September 2008)