Newsroom Cambodia

UN Human Rights Experts Press Government to Address Rong Chhun Arrest

United Nations human rights experts are increasing pressure on the Cambodian government to explain the arrest of labor leader Rong Chhun, saying it has been nearly two months since any information had been provided on the case.

The UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor, on Thursday told Newsroom Cambodia that 60 days had passed since a group of UN experts requested information from the government. The five-member human rights panel sent a letter on August 18 seeking clarification on the legal basis for the arrest and detention of Chhun and how the case was compatible with the right to freedom of expression.

The UN rights experts on October 17 publicized their letter to the government after receiving no response.

“The Special Rapporteur [on human rights] will continue to monitor the case regardless of whether a response is received and based on any new developments and information that she receives and can verify,” Lawlor said in a statement released by her advisor, Brian Dooley.

Kata Orn, a member of the government’s Human Rights Committee, on Thursday defended the government, saying the case was “out of its hands.”

“The [case] has already reached the courts and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will consider whether to respond or not because we have responded many times already about this case,” Orn said.

Chhun, president of the Cambodian Trade Union Confederation, was arrested and jailed on July 31 on the charge of incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest after he claimed that Cambodian borderland had been illegally ceded to Vietnam. Chhun said the construction of border posts 114 to 119 had caused hundreds of hectares of land in Tbong Khmum province to be encroached on by Vietnam.

The UN experts wrote that “Chhun was arrested at his home in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district by 25 to 30 unidentified men in plain clothes. According to information we received, one man was believed to be from the Phnom Penh Police as he wore a black uniform resembling a police uniform. During the arrest, no document or warrant was reportedly shown to Rong Chhun and family members who were at home with him. The men did not provide information as to the reason for the arrest and where he would be taken.”

He is currently being held in pre-trial detention in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 1 and is facing a maximum prison term of two years.

The rights group also questioned the Cambodia authorities’ dispersal of the peaceful assemblies on August 3 and August 5 outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, demanding the release of Chhun. The experts claim the demonstrations were legal under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and also should have been allowed by Cambodian law.

The UN letter to the Cambodian government described Chhun as a “human rights defender.”

The statement continued: “In recent months, he has campaigned for the government to secure unpaid wages and benefits to laid-off workers, for the release of teachers who had been arrested for making comments on public health and COVID-19, and to address the human rights concerns made by the European Union prior to the lifting of the ‘Everything but Arms’ preferential trade agreement.”

The UN human rights experts included the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders.

Koy Kuong, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, could not be reached for comment.

Meas Nee, a social development analyst, said that given the facts in the case, the government could do little but ignore the UN’s request for an explanation.

“In Rong Chhun’s case, if we see it from the outside, it is completely political,” Nee said. “So there is nothing for the government to say. It can only remain silent … Chhun was arrested at night and without any arrest warrant.” 

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