Cambodia placed on list of ‘repressive’ countries: CIVICUS | Media news

Cambodia’s longtime ruler Hun Sen has “overseen a systematic attack on fundamental freedoms,” the report said.

Cambodia has seen a worrying decline in fundamental freedoms as authorities use the legal system to restrict and criminalize human rights work, youth activism, trade unions, independent journalism, opposition politicians and other voices critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, a leading rights group has warned.

To further strengthen his nearly 40-year iron grip on power, Hun Sen recently used the COVID-19 pandemic to implement a state of emergency law that further curtailed the fundamental freedoms of Cambodian citizens, said CIVICUS – a global alliance of civil society organizations monitoring fundamental freedom all over the world.

“The abuse of the criminal justice system to harass and prosecute human rights defenders, trade unionists and journalists, and the closure of media outlets, underscores Cambodia’s democratic regression,” CIVICUS said in a report on Cambodia released Thursday.

Hun Sen, the organization said, “has overseen a systematic attack on fundamental freedoms in Cambodia over the past decade” and the country is now on a watch list of “repressive” countries joining Iran, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Peru, among others.

“Cambodian human rights defenders and activists continue to face repression,” said CIVICUS, which monitors civil liberties in 197 countries and territories, and “press freedom continues to be threatened in Cambodia with radio stations and newspapers silenced, newsrooms purged and journalists prosecuted, leaving the independent media sector devastated”.

Protesters hold signs 'HUN SEN Go!!!" and the other his face with a red cross over it
Protesters chant slogans against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen during the EU-Asia Leaders Summit in Brussels, Belgium in 2018. [File: Francois Lenoir/Reuters]

On Monday, Hun Sen ordered the closure of one of the country’s last remaining independent media outlets, Voice of Democracy (VOD), after it reported a story involving his son and rightful heir, Hun Manet. Hun Sen said the story of aid to earthquake-hit Turkey was misreported and apologized. Despite the apology, he still ordered the shutdown of VOD.

European Union embassies in Cambodia have expressed concern over Hun Sen’s closure of VOD, as have Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The decision to close the news outlet was “particularly troubling because of the chilling impact it will have on freedom of expression and access to information in the run-up to national elections in July,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday.

Responding to international criticism over his closure of VOD, Hun Sen on Tuesday warned foreigners not to interfere in Cambodia’s internal affairs.

Cambodia’s foreign ministry said the closure of a “rule-breaking” news outlet “deserves no concern” and accused foreign diplomats who raised concerns as “politically driven, prejudiced and biased”.

Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific researcher for CIVICUS, said the abuse of the criminal justice system and the “systematic attack on the country’s civic space” were in violation of Cambodia’s international human rights obligations.

With more than 50 political prisoners in prison and more than 150 opposition party leaders and supporters targeted in politically motivated prosecutions, CIVICUS said there were “serious concerns about the escalating climate of repression against the opposition” ahead of Cambodia’s national elections in July.

In a list of recommendations accompanying the report, the organization called on the Cambodian government to drop all charges against those exercising their constitutional rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression, and to end mass trials, arbitrary arrests, violence, harassment and intimidation targeting the country’s political opposition .

Journalists were also to be protected from intimidation and allowed to “work freely without fear of reprisal for expressing critical opinions or exposing government abuses,” CIVICUS said.

CIVICUS also called on the international community – through diplomatic missions and representatives in Cambodia – to put pressure on the Cambodian government to protect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens and publicize international concerns about the worsening situation in Cambodia – including raising concerns at the United Nations for human rights of the Rights Council and “initiate stronger action by the Council if necessary”.

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