Hun Sen Insists Recent Arrests Not Political

21 Nov

By:  Hul Reaksmey, The Cambodia Daily, 21 November 2014

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday told those who have claimed that a spate of recent arrests were politically motivated to “be careful” with their words, and raised the prospect that the seven CNRP lawmakers released from jail on July 22 could still be prosecuted.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen said the July 22 political deal with CNRP President Sam Rainsy, which led the opposition to end its 10-month parliamentary boycott, had not brought an end to criminal justice.

“Please, other people, be careful with your words,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “The agreement of the two political parties on July 22 was not an agreement that put an end to the court processes for criminal cases. I want to clarify this.”

Mr. Hun Sen recounted that during a recent private meeting at the National Assembly, he informed Mr. Rainsy that the “insurrection” cases against the seven CNRP lawmakers and party official who were released from prison on the night of July 22 were not thrown out when the deal was made.

“The July 22 agreement did not end the cases in the court, including what I told His Excellency Sam Rainsy: Nobody can end this criminal prosecution,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Now, the parliamentarians have immunity, [but they] will be brought to trial if the immunity expires.”

The charges against the seven lawmakers include “leading an insurrection,” which can carry a jail sentence of up to 30 years.

Meach Sovannara, a prominent opposition CNRP official, was arrested and jailed on Tuesday last week—the morning after yet another round of failed talks between the two parties over a new bipartisan election committee.

A number of other political activists were also arrested last week, including a group of seven women from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak community, who were sentenced to a year in prison during a trial held the day after they blocked a road with a bed during a protest.

Mr. Hun Sen said Thursday that such cases were clear breaches of the law and had to be prosecuted accordingly.

“It can’t be tolerated when there are roadblocks when something is happening because that’s time for the authorities to take action,” he said. “Is it easy to block a road while there are patients [being taken to the hospital]? And then to…interpret the criminal case as a political case?”

Mr. Sovannara, the CNRP official, was arrested over the same violent July 15 opposition protest that led police to imprison the seven CNRP lawmakers-elect and another party official in the days leading up to the sudden deal between the CPP and CNRP.

The prime minister said Thursday that those eight were released on bail on July 22 because the CNRP agreed to work to settle a number of civil cases against the lawmakers lodged by security guards injured in the protest at the center of their arrests.

“I was a negotiator and there was a request for intervention on the negotiation day,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I told His Excellency Sam Rainsy and his delegation to please speed up the civil cases in order to halt the criminal cases.”

“Why did I say that? It’s because we talked already about entering the parliament, so please enter the parliament, if you have to enter the parliament…for immunity. It’s called a civil procedure to halt a criminal procedure,” he said.

Mr. Hun Sen also claimed Thursday that if he had the power to intervene, he would order the release of Mr. Sovannara and the other political activists arrested and jailed last week.

“Now, they accuse the government of using tools to crack the opposition party or arresting other people as hostages,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I want to send a message back that this case has happened because the prime minister and the government have no rights over the court.

“If I could say, ‘Please courts, don’t arrest,’ it would be convenient,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I would order the court to release today if I had that right. But I don’t have that right.”

Mr. Rainsy repeatedly said in the weeks after the deal that one of its key benefits would be the absence of arrests of activists and clashes between police and protesters.

At the time, no one in the CPP said that criminal litigation over the July 15 protest or other protests would cease, but both parties said the agreement included a pledge to restore a free political environment after months of protest repression and seemingly spurious arrests of protesters.

The CNRP’s seven lawmakers were sworn into office in August, gaining immunity from prosecution. A two-thirds majority of the 123-seat National Assembly is needed to strip lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity—a figure that neither party holds on its own.

Mr. Hun Sen dismissed claims made by the CNRP and a number of civil society groups over the past week that last week’s arrests were made to pressure the CNRP to fold in deadlocked talks to create the new electoral commission.

“It will not prevent the negotiating process to create the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the National Election Committee and the continuation of the amending of the internal [parliamentary] rules,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

“I think it’s better not to pour gasoline onto a fire,” he added. “Everything must go according to law.”

Electricity Provider Says Power From Koh Kong Dam Not Wasted

21 Nov

By:  Kang Sothear, The Cambodia Daily, 21 November 2014

Cambodia’s national electricity provider issued a statement Thursday disputing claims that the electricity being generated by the 246-megawatt Stung Tatai Dam in Koh Kong province is going unused, and saying the dam is only in a “testing phase.”

The statement issued by Electricite du Cambodge (EdC) contradicts assertions made by Ith Praing, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

In an interview earlier this month, Mr. Praing said that since the Tatai dam went online in mid-August, the electricity it produces “has not been distributed” because the area lacks the required infrastructure.

“[T]hese project facilities are being tested and are incomplete as of now,” the EdC statement says, adding that the dam will not officially go online until early next year.

“As such there has not been any ‘unused electricity’ and ‘lost revenue,’” it says.

Contacted Thursday, Mr. Praing said, once again, that the Tatai dam has created a surplus of electricity.

“We have created electricity that is beyond the capacity of the current power grid during the rainy season, and this electricity has not been used yet,” he said.

“We do not yet have a power grid to absorb and distribute [the electricity],” he added.

Keo Rotanak, the director-general of EdC, could not be reached Thursday.

During a speech on October 6 at an international investment conference, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the development of hydropower dams in the country led to an oversupply of energy during this year’s rainy season.

“During the rainy season in 2014, Cambodia has had a surplus of about 246 megawatts [of electricity] that has not been consumed due to lack of a power grid,” Mr. Hun Sen said. He did not name the Tatai dam specifically.

Mr. Praing has also said the government is planning to build a new power grid to deliver electricity from the Tatai dam to consumers, but is waiting on hundred of millions of dollars’ worth of loans to do so.

According to Chea Sitha, the vice president of Brightway Group, which represents a Chinese company that submitted a proposal to build the grid to the Mines and Energy Ministry last month, the government has already lost some $74 million in revenue because it is unable to sell the dam’s electricity.

Construction Workers’ Lives Hang in the Balance

20 Nov

By: Alex Consiglio and Hay Pisey, The Cambodia Daily, 20 November 2014

Every morning, An Vy slips on a pair of flip-flops and heads to work, climbing 15 flights of stairs littered with debris to the roof of a high-rise condo under construction in Phnom Penh.

There, the scrawny 26-year-old works his way up a maze of scaffolding and teeters on its edge without a safety harness or helmet and begins his work.

Construction worker Phal Roeun, 32, makes his way along a wooden frame atop a condominium construction site on Street 352 in Phnom Penh's Chamkar Mon district. (Alex Consiglio/The Cambodia Daily)

Construction worker Phal Roeun, 32, makes his way along a wooden frame atop a condominium construction site on Street 352 in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district. (Alex Consiglio/The Cambodia Daily)

 

“I am so scared that I’ll fall down from the top to the ground, but I have to do it,” Mr. Vy said last week as he hammered pieces of wood into place for a concrete mold.

“I do not have any other skills apart from this. I stopped studying at grade three because my family is very poor,” Mr. Vy explained, adding he cannot afford to buy his own safety equipment on his pay of about $8 per day.

“I need a harness belt, boots, and helmet to protect my life.”

Around him, Phnom Penh is undergoing a massive building boom. Across the country, investment in construction has risen from $840 million in 2010 to $2.7 billion in 2013, according to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.

But the government has not been able to keep pace with the boom to ensure the safety of the sector’s workforce, which labor experts estimate at 175,000 to 200,000, many of whom are unskilled and paid by the day.

The Ministry of Labor, which is responsible for worker safety, does not have a safety code for construction workers or the buildings they work on. Instead, construction firms have been left to police themselves, and face no consequences for endangering workers’ lives, which are lost at an alarming rate.

In its 2011 to 2015 Decent Work Country Program for Cambodia, the International Labor Organization estimated that at least 1,500 workers died in 2009 of occupational accidents—roughly four people every day—with construction sites and brick kilns being the most dangerous work places in the country.

Last week, the Labor Ministry invited the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency to its headquarters to host a workshop and help the ministry draft regulations to hold construction companies accountable.

“The unsafe working conditions cause the accidents,” Leng Tong, director of the Labor Ministry’s safety department, said outside the workshop. “In Korea, the managers and companies are punished, but here that does not happen.”

Although companies are required to get a construction permit from the Land Management Ministry, which includes a promise to ensure worker safety and provide safety equipment, enforcement is nonexistent.

The 1997 Labor Law ostensibly guarantees safe work places for employees, including the provision of safety equipment, but says the Labor Ministry must establish a prakas, or ministerial proclamation, to enforce the law.

“We do not have the regulations to require the workers to wear safety equipment,” Mr. Tong said. “So far, we do not conduct inspections on high-rise construction sites.”

But it’s high-rise buildings—filled with condominiums and office space—that are springing up in Phnom Penh at a staggering rate.

In 2009, less than 100 condominium units were available in Phnom Penh, a number expected to grow to more than 6,000 by 2018, according to a July 2014 research report by realty group CBRE-Cambodia.

Mr. Tong said his inspectors have tried to enter condo construction sites in the past, but have always been turned away due to a lack of power.

“When we have gone, workers just say they are a subcontractor and cannot allow us on the site,” he said. “It’s hard to find out who’s in charge and responsible for the workers’ safety.”

Mr. Tong said he could not provide reliable statistics for the number of construction workers injured or killed per year because companies do not report accidents.

“On construction sites, accidents are high,” Mr. Tong said. “It’s very hard [to track accidents] because we get information mostly from the newspapers.”

It is only after lethal accidents occur, and are reported, that the government will potentially suspend construction and close a site temporarily, as was the case early this month when a support beam plummeted 12 stories and killed a woman driving by an Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC) construction site next to Olympic Stadium.

After closure, an inspection is then carried out by the Land Management Ministry, not the Labor Ministry, to issue guidelines on making the site safer. The site is then allowed to reopen if those conditions are met.

No Penalties

Temporary closure is ostensibly the only punishment construction companies currently face from either ministry, according Mr. Tong and Huy Nara, director of the Land Management Ministry’s construction department.

“We will close the site, but step by step we do this,” Mr. Nara said in his office last week. “But you are right, we are lacking the penalties.”

Yi Kannitha, the deputy director of the Labor Ministry’s safety department, said the ministry has plans to introduce a prakas for construction worker safety some time next year, which will lead to inspections of large-scale sites.

“We [the Labor Ministry] have no right, we have no rights,” he said. “We lack laws on the construction sites. We cannot fine [companies] without laws. We cannot punish them because we have no laws or regulations.”

But Dave Welsh, country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights group, isn’t holding his breath for the ministry to take action.

“The Ministry of Labor is one of the least proactive ministries,” he said. “They have to be pushed on everything, especially in terms of enforcing worker protection.”

Mr. Welsh, who considers construction work “the most dangerous industry in the country,” said a prakas to enforce worker safety measures is being stalled because the government fears it would scare away investors.

“It’s money,” he said. “With every prakas that puts up labor costs, the rule of thumb from the government’s point of view is that it detracts from investment opportunities.”

Mr. Welsh added that the majority of construction workers risking their lives on the job are not insured in the case of injury or death due to a loophole in the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), which is supposed to compensate injured workers and families of workers killed on the job.

“The industry’s—and to an extent the government’s—take on it is that these are independent contractors or day laborers; they’re not actual employees,” he said. “That’s nonsense. Any payment is, in effect, a contract.”

At the construction site in Phnom Penh where Mr. Vy works, neither he nor the dozens of other workers there could name the company they were working for. All they knew was that a man named Thorn would be there at the end of the workday to pay them in cash.

Cheav Bunrith, director of policy for the NSSF, said companies are required by law to register with and contribute to the scheme, but only salaried employees are insured.

“The workers who are paid day by day are not registered,” he said, explaining that it’s up to individual workers to pay into the NSSF if they want insurance.

But workers like Dam Nang, 31, a general laborer who works with Mr. Vy, cannot afford coverage on his $5.20 daily income.

Mr. Nang, who is paid by the day, said he “dare not ask” for a contract or safety equipment for fear of losing his job.

“I am so scared to fall off the building,” said Mr. Nang, sitting in his makeshift bed on the first floor of the condominium building.

“When I look to the ground, the hair stands up on the back of my neck.”

Potential for New Land Concessions

20 Nov

By: Ven Rathavong, Khmer Time, 20 November 2014

Villagers look on as park rangers inspect intrusion by villagers into an economic land concession. (KT Photo: MoE Park Rangers, Bokor)

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) –  New economic land concessions (ELCs) may be granted by the government under stringent new rules in the near future, if an ambitious plan by current ELC holders becomes a reality.

The scheme could result in villagers and ELCs cohabiting together without confrontation or land grabbing from each other.

Under the proposed plan, the government will map available state land which could be put up for auction. Satellite images will be used to identify the hectares  of land that can be cultivated,  availability of water sources, wetlands and forest reserves as well as existing villages, among others.

Only companies with a successful track record of managing ELCs, or multinationals with land development experience should be allowed to bid for the new ELCs, along with stand-alone companies with proven track record.

“These preliminary works such as satellite imageries and ground survey will incur costs, but they can be passed onto the winning bidder. This will ensure transparency and  minimize clashes with villagers,” said an ELC representative with a European based conglomerate.

“More importantly, it will boost Cambodia’s agricultural sector because another condition of the new ELCs will be the requirement for processing industries to be part of the bid.”

The ELC representative said that for too long, well connected businessmen and their cronies had been able to obtain ELC’s at low prices only to sit on them.

Many are more interested in making money out of timber, rather than developing the ELCs with crops such as  palm oil, rubber or sugar.

“Some have had their ELC for more than 10 years, had the concession revoked, only to be re-awarded  and then go through the whole process of evaluation again. In this scenario, the land may end up in a ‘free-for-all’ situation where villagers will swarm in and claim it as theirs,” said the representative.

“We have seen officials marking land without authorization for villagers based on the fact that it has banana plants and mango trees purportedly planted a year or so before, when the evidence shows clearly that the trees have been transplanted, practically overnight! Yet, they were marked for villagers at the local level, without the national level officials being informed or involved and, in many cases, even the ELC holders were not aware of the situation.”

The new plans for ELC’s follow similar calls for on shore oil concession blocks to be auctioned off, or for international bids to be allowed to ensure transparency.

But for the scheme to succeed legislation is needed, added the representative. At the moment, different ministries were not cooperating sufficiently. So, while the Ministry of Environment has announced the revocation of ELC’s for non-performance or abuse by the holders, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has yet to clarify the status of ELC’s awarded by them.

“We are wondering why the Agriculture Ministry hasn’t followed the Ministry of Environment’s example and revoked ELCs that aren’t following the rules?”

Major companies like Sime Darby, Olam, and Carsons have also expressed interest in repeating their successful investments in Malaysia and Africa, but were concerned over the lack of clarity around ELCs. Sinochem’s rubber division, GMG Global, chose Africa over Cambodia.

“They moved to places like Cameroon and  Liberia instead, even though the risks are even higher than Cambodia. But they still invested there and also put money in downstream industries,” said the insider, who did not wish to be named.

The Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that, since 1996, successive Special Representatives of the Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia had expressed concern about the impact of economic land concessions on the human rights and livelihoods of rural communities.

Essential pre-conditions to the grant of concessions, such as the registration of land as state or private land, public consultations over environmental and social impact assessments have not been met.

Lawmaker Ho Vann of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) noted that while some ELC licenses had been revoked over concerns about their operations, more should be scrutinized. He said ELCs which do not provide benefits for the people and the country should be revoked.

“I think the proposal for bidding for ELCs is good, but there need to be conditions on the bids. Bids have to meet a required standard. If they don’t, it will simply create more corruption,” said Mr. Vann

.
ELC’s owners, though, said that a successful ELC is a matter of implementation, execution and follow through of the master plan for development.

“Responsible concession holders do actually work on the land, building infrastructure which benefits the local villagers. The local community gains in terms of commerce and employment, gets medical and sanitary facilities, while the ELC holders spend millions of dollars while developing the concession and waiting for it to mature,” said one ELC owner.

“Not all concession holders want to get entangled with villagers. The villagers are on land the ELC holders have procured legally to develop and earn profits and generate employment. These are grassroots benefits which the people need and if carried out responsibly, will see tremendous improvements to the villages and suburbs in which they are developing.”

Whether the new proposals for ELCs will be implemented will depend on developments in the coming months. Concession holders are planning to form a working group to address the issues with the relevant ministries.

Members of Cobra-Attack Family in Hiding

20 Nov

By:Alex Consiglio and Mech Dara, The Cambodia Daily, 20 November 2014

After her husband and daughter were arrested and jailed in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, the matriarch of a family locked in a land dispute with developer Khun Sear and his eponymous import-export firm was in hiding with her 18-year-old son Wednesday—fearing she’d be next.

Ly Sreang Kheng, 58, and his daughter, Ly Searminh, 23, were placed in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison on Tuesday after being charged under the country’s Land Law with using violence against a property owner, according to their lawyer, Han Meng Hoeung.

The home of Ly Sreang Kheng's family stands next to an apartment building in Phnom Penh's Tuol Kok district Wednesday. (Alex Consiglio/The Cambodia Daily)

The home of Ly Sreang Kheng’s family stands next to an apartment building in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district Wednesday. (Alex Consiglio/The Cambodia Daily)

Their arrests—Mr. Sreang Kheng was detained at his home in Tuol Kok district, his daughter when she came to visit him at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court later that day—follow a series of brazen attacks on the family over the past year in retaliation, they claim, for their refusal to accept $15,000 to vacate the ramshackle house they have occupied for decades.

In October last year, a bag of venomous cobras was thrown through their window.

“The court and authorities are doing this to force us to leave our home,” Mok Siv Hong, Mr. Sreang Kheng’s wife, said Wednesday while hiding from police.

Ms. Siv Hong said security guards working for Khun Sear Import Export Company—who monitor her home every day—have been the perpetrators of the violence, including beatings, arson and the killing of their pets.

“They see we are the only family left now,” she said. “The security guards try their best to scare us, but we are not afraid [of them]. We are afraid of the police.”

Mr. Sear—whose company acquired the plot the family lives on in a swap with the municipality in November last year—has said the family’s refusal to leave is preventing him from developing condominiums.

According to Ms. Siv Hong, her family was one of three families refusing to make way for Mr. Sear’s planned development until September, when the other two accepted compensation and left.

Mr. Meng Hoeung, the lawyer, Wednesday said the company filed a complaint against the family with the municipal court in September and that all four members failed to head summonses to appear for questioning.

Khun Sear disputants jailed

19 Nov

By: Chhay Channyda, Phnom Penh Post, 19 November 2014

Ly Srea Kheng is escorted into Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday morning after he was arrested by authorities at his house in Tuol Kork district. Vireak Mai

A father and daughter who claim to have been victims of a string of abuses over the course of a long-running land dispute – including having snakes thrown into their house – were arrested yesterday.

Ly Srea Kheng, 60, was arrested at his home in the capital’s Tuol Kork district yesterday morning. Later that day, in dramatic circumstances, his daughter Ly Seav Minh, 23, was detained at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, while her brother, Ly Bunheang, 18, fled from the building, evading police on foot through surrounding streets.

The family has been fighting eviction since the Council of Ministers effectively signed over their land to the politically connected Khun Sear Import Export Co in 2010.

Seav Minh and Bunheang had been at court asking about the whereabouts of their father.

“They arrested him in front of my eyes,” said his wife, Mak Seav Houng. “Four police officers came in a car with four or five police motorbikes accompanying them.”

Srea Kheng was wearing only shorts when he was hauled away by police, who did not show a warrant or give him the chance to collect a shirt and shoes, his wife said.

“He was pushed into the car at such speed; they said nothing.”

Seav Minh and Bunheang went to the court at about 4pm seeking answers.

“When I arrived, its officials were friendly and called my sister to go inside a room,” Bunheang said. “Later, I saw her walk out, accompanied by two police officers, to the toilet. From there, she phoned me and told me to get out of the building.

“I knew I would be arrested if I stayed. I ran out and a few police officers chased me.”

After Seav Minh’s arrest, Bunheang said, he and his mother moved to a “safe place”. They were worried last night about their empty house being seized.

The family claims that employees of Khun Sear have thrown snakes into their house, destroyed their property, poisoned their animals and beaten them in an attempt to get them to give up their home of 30 years. The company has denied the allegations. According to Vann Sophat, from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the company has accused the family of theft, destruction of property, violence and defamation.

The court had summonsed the family to appear for their latest round of questioning on November 13 and 14, but they asked for a delay, Sophat added.

“These arrests are illegal, because there is no warrant,” he said. “This is a message that they must move out … or face arrest.”

Court officials and Choun Narin, Phnom Penh deputy police chief, could not be reached.

The arrests closely follow those of 10 land activists and one monk who were sentenced to one year in prison last week.

 

Father, Daughter of Family in Land Dispute Arrested, Jailed

19 Nov

By: Mech Dara, The Cambodia Daily, 19 November 2014

A man whose family has been locked in a land dispute with real-estate magnate Khun Sear and his eponymous import-export firm was on Tuesday arrested at his Phnom Penh home, charged with violating the country’s Land Law and jailed, according to the family’s lawyer.

When his daughter came to visit him during his questioning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, she too was arrested, charged with the same crime as her father—using violence against a property owner—and placed in pretrial detention, said lawyer Han Meng Hoeung.

The arrest of Ly Sreang Kheng and his daughter, Ly Searminh, comes after a series of brazen attacks on the family over the past year following his refusal to accept $15,000 to leave their home in Tuol Kok district.

Mr. Meng Hoeung said the Khun Sear Import Export Company lodged a complaint against the family with the court on September 5, adding that his clients were questioned by Investigating Judge Ly Lib Meng and deputy prosecutor Seu Vanny on Tuesday.

Neither court official could be reached.

“The deputy prosecutor accused me of stealing the company’s property, defamation and using violence,” Mr. Sreang Kheng said at the courthouse Tuesday.

“This is not justice for me, as they are the ones who tried to kill me. Even if they kill me, I will not accept the land robber’s money.”

“I am shocked that they are detaining me,” his daughter, Ms. Searminh said during a break from proceedings. “It is an injustice, as we did nothing wrong.”

The family says the company has attempted to intimidate them into vacating their property—which they have been living on for decades—through beatings, arson and the killing of their pets.

In October last year, a bag of venomous cobras was thrown through the window of their home.

Mr. Sear says the family’s refusal to take compensation and leave their home is preventing him from developing condominiums on the plot, which he claims he owns.

UN Envoy, NGOs Rebuke Gov’t Over Recent Spate of Arrests

19 Nov

By: Kuch Naren , The Cambodia Daily, 19 November 2014

The U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia on Tuesday joined a group of local NGOs in criticizing a spate of recent arrests of activists, monks and opposition figures.

Ten female land rights activists, three Buddhist monks and two opposition CNRP figures were all arrested last week. Of the 15, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has already convicted 11 of them in two snap trials, sentencing them each to a year in jail.

Anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha and other residents of Phnom Penh's Boeng Kak neighborhood protest outside the British Embassy on Tuesday. (Satoshi Takahashi)

Anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha and other residents of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood protest outside the British Embassy on Tuesday. (Satoshi Takahashi)

U.N. envoy Surya Subedi on Tuesday urged the government to respect the law while calling on the country’s courts to exercise their authority independent of outside influences.

“It saddens me to see the courts being used again and again as a tool of the executive,” he said in a statement. “The lack of judicial independence is one of the central obstacles to achieving the just, inclusive society that Cambodians strive for.”

“Those who seek to exercise fundamental freedoms can be arrested, charged and convicted, on little or no material grounds. For such cases, justice in the heavily backlogged judicial system can be remarkably swift,” Mr. Subedi added.

Six NGOs also held a press conference Tuesday to condemn the arrests, calling the government’s crackdown on its critics a serious human rights violation.

Latt Khy, who heads the land and livelihoods program for rights group Adhoc, said the courts were clearly under political pressure as the charges brought against the activists were “baseless.”

“We, the civil society groups, believe all the people arrested, convicted, and imprisoned did not commit wrongdoing as charged,” he said.

Son Chum Chuon, program director for the Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights and Development Association, said the forced defrocking and imprisonment of three ethnic Khmer Krom monks was a violation of Buddhist principles and had left many Khmer Krom activists fearful of joining any more protests.

“The arrest and detention of the three Khmer Krom monks is a move to crack down on activists to prevent them from participating in social work,” he said.

The Khmer Krom hail from what is present-day southern Vietnam. Many of those living in Cambodia feel colonial France unjustly ceded the area to Vietnam and advocate for its return to Cambodia.

Suon Bunsak, executive director of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said the groups would seek a meeting with lawmakers from the National Assembly’s human rights commission to push for the immediate release of those jailed last week.

On Tuesday morning, about 200 supporters of those arrested marched to 15 embassies to bring attention to their plight. They submitted petitions to the U.S. Embassy, the European Union delegation and offices of the U.N. asking them to put pressure on the Cambodian government to release the group.

 

Villagers Staying at Pagoda March to Assembly

18 Nov

By:  OUCH SONY AND GEORGE WRIGHT , The Cambodia Daily, 18 November 2014

Villagers from Preah Vihear province who for the past two months have been staying at Phnom Penh’s Samakki Raingsey pagoda Monday marched to the National Assembly to deliver a petition demanding the return of their farmland.

About 70 villagers set off from the pagoda in Meanchey district at about 6:30 a.m. to get a jump on the police that blocked their previous attempts to march to the city center last week, said Thach Ha Sam Ang, the pagoda’s deputy chief monk.

Villagers from Preah Vihear province march through Phnom Penh on their way to deliver a petition at the National Assembly on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Villagers from Preah Vihear province march through Phnom Penh on their way to deliver a petition at the National Assembly on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

 

“This morning, people started marching about 6:30 a.m., but there were no monks joining them. Four representatives had been assigned to inform people in the morning and they started to march immediately,” said Thach Ha Sam Ang. “The authorities could not stop the villagers.”

The arrests of two monks outside the Samakki Raingsey pagoda and jailing of activist monk Soeung Hai during a protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday scared the monks into staying home Monday, Thach Ha Sam Ang said.

After chanting their way down Mao Tse Toung and Sothearos boulevards, the villagers arrived at the National Assembly, where four representatives were allowed inside to hand off their petition.

Community representative Phan Thoeun said that he and three other villagers met with CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, chairman of the assembly’s human rights commission, who promised to look into their land dispute

The petition demands that 610 hectares of land in three villages be returned to the residents, and that authorities refrain from using further violence against protesters, following a clash with district security guards in Phnom Penh last month that resulted in 18 of them being injured.

Former village chief Kan Ngim, 51, who was among the marchers Monday, said the community first settled in Choam Ksan district in 1999 and lived free of conflict until 2010, when he refused a request from Sous Yara, a National Assembly member from the province, to build a local government office on part of the land.

“He said that if you don’t let me have some of the land, then none of you will have any land,” Mr. Ngim said of Mr. Yara.

Mr. Ngim claimed that in late 2010, Mr. Yara declared that the part of the area the villagers were living on was located inside the protected Unesco World Heritage Site surrounding Preah Vihear temple.

“He started claiming that it was a protected area and then, in 2011, they sent soldiers to dismantle our houses,” he said, adding that after losing their farmland, many families that once lived in the area had left to find work in Thailand.

Contacted by telephone, Mr. Yara refused to comment on the dispute, but voiced his general frustration with the villagers.

“I have no idea why these people have gone to Phnom Penh rather than solve the problem with local authorities,” he said.

“Do they think that only Phnom Penh has laws?”

In relics case, justice takes time

18 Nov

By: Chhay Channyda, Phnom Penh Post, 18 November 2014

Authorities and monks gather around a golden urn from Oudong Mountain and other seized items at a police station in Kandal province in February. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The speed at which 11 people – 10 land activists and a monk – were sentenced to one year in prison last week shows just how fast the justice system in Cambodia can work.

It also stands in stark contrast to the large number of cases that involve long periods of pre-trial detention, including ones where the involvement of suspects remains unclear.

At Kandal prison, Sieng Chamrouen, 35, has been making regular visits to her father, Sieng Sarin, one of four security guards arrested along with a villager when a golden urn containing the ashes of the Buddha was stolen from Oudong Mountain in December.

“My dad was on duty that night, but he does not know who stole the relics,” Chamrouen said.

The relics were later found in Takeo and a 24-year-old man, Keo Reaksmey, was charged after police raided his house. By then, though, police had allegedly already found other statues stolen from Oudong in the home of chief security guard Pha Sokhem.

Effectively treated as a single entity, the security guards and villager were charged and ordered into pre-trial detention.

In the time since their arrest, Chamrouen said, her father and the other men arrested at Oudong have not seen the inside of a courtroom.

“[My father] has been in prison for almost a year,” she said. “He’s innocent [and] should be released.”

A gold seller arrested the same day as Reaksmey and charged with receiving stolen goods has had a similarly uncertain time in prison, though at least has gone to trial.

In a court hearing in Kandal on October 28, Siek Sareth, 39, denied knowing that gold she had bought from Reaksmey – melted down from relics looted from Oudong – was stolen.

“The gold was in melted small pieces,” she said. “I did not know they were relics. I have been a gold dealer for more than 20 years and I have never done anything illegal.”

When Sareth arrived in court on November 12 – with a verdict due – she was told that presiding judge Hok Vanthina was busy. She was then sent back to prison without being told when the verdict would come.

Reaksmey has not yet gone on trial. He did, however, appear in court as Sareth’s only witness, she said.

“He told the court that I did not know anything and he wanted to tell the court that I am innocent and he acted alone,” she said.

Officials at the court gave few details about the three cases.

Lim Sokuntha, the investigating judge in the guards’ case, said he had concluded investigations, meaning his decision on whether to pursue convictions or throw the cases out had been forwarded to the prosecutor.

Sam Rethy Veasna, a court deputy prosecutor, said he had seen no such documents from Sokuntha.

According to NGO the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), Cambodia is the 27th worst in the world for percentage of pre-trial or remand prisoners in its overall prison population. With about 60 per cent of its prison population composed of inmates in pre-trial detention, it is worse than Iraq and is the second worst in Southeast Asia, just behind the Philippines.

The ICPS’s definition of pre-trial detention includes time served right up until the end of the criminal trial and final appeal.

Using this same basic definition, local rights group Licadho says that 63 per cent of the adult prison population is in pre-trial detention, based on government figures from September.

“For women, the percentage would be 70 per cent and for juveniles it stands at 83 per cent,” Licadho said.

By law, anyone facing a misdemeanor charge can be held up to six months and anyone charged with a more serious crime can be held for up to 18 months.

However, the law says that pre-trial detention is meant to be used only in exceptional circumstances. Reasons for using it include preventing further crime being committed, ensuring the accused attends court and protecting public order.

“As clearly set out in the Cambodian Code of Criminal Procedure, in principle, a charged person should remain at liberty,” said Licadho’s prison consultant, Sharon Critoph. “Pre-trial detention should only be ordered as a last resort and only in cases of a felony or a misdemeanor involving a punishment of one year or more [in prison].”

While the theft of national relics would fit that category, long pre-trial periods behind bars often hinder chances of a fair trial, rights groups say.

“It can be argued that where somebody has been held in pre-trial detention, particularly in cases where the statutory time limits have been exceeded, a judge is more likely to hand down a custodial sentence,” the Cambodian Center for Human Rights wrote in a 2013 briefing paper on the matter.

Early this year, judges were ordered to begin documenting their reasons for putting someone in pre-trial detention.

“[Licadho] welcomed these moves towards reform, but notes with disappointment that there appears to be no effective monitoring of the extent to which the procedures are properly implemented,” Critoph said.

Continued high rates of pre-trial detention suggested the changes have brought no significant impact yet, she added.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL

 

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