UN calls for release of human rights activists in Cambodia

BERLIN (AP) — A group of women in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, held a small but spirited protest Friday demanding the release of their detained husbands, as the United Nations human rights office joined two international rights groups in condemning a recent wave of arrests of dissidents and activists in the Southeast Asian nation.

The Geneva-based office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights called for Cambodia to release detained human rights and environmental activists, saying at least two dozen have been arrested because of their work in recent weeks.

It said about half of those detained since July 31, when prominent labor union activist Rong Chhun was arrested, have been released “reportedly after signing agreements under duress to discontinue human rights activities.” The others, including Rong Chhun, remain under arrest, it said.

The global body said some of the activists were arrested after posting on Facebook that they planned to walk to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to protest feared environmental destruction. Several activists also received phone calls with death threats if they don’t cease their activism

The arrests marked “a deepening of the government’s intolerance to dissent and repression of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” said the U.N. human rights office. It called for those detained for exercising their rights to be immediately and unconditionally released, and for intimidation of civil society actors to cease.

The U.N. statement came after similar expressions of concern from London-based Amnesty International and New York-based Human Rights Watch.

Friday’s protest took place next to the Royal Palace at the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh. The demonstrating women appealed to the court to have their husbands, most of whom are former members of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, released from jail.

Muong Sopheak, a member of the Khmer Students and Intellectual Association, on Thursday became the latest activist to be arrested. He is one of several people. including a Buddhist monk, who were arrested for taking part in a recent protest demanding the release of Rong Chhun. Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman Col. San Sok Seiha said Muong Sopheak has been charged with “inciting social unrest,”

According to Human Rights Watch, “Cambodia is currently detaining over 50 people on politically motivated grounds, including opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party activists, youth, environmental activists, and journalists reporting for independent media outlets.”

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for 35 years, combining guile and strong-arming to dominate his country’s politics. In late 2017, his administration launched a crackdown on critics and political opponents in what was widely seen as clearing the way for his Cambodian People's Party to stay in power after the 2018 general election. Utilizing the law, independent media outlets were closed or cowed into submission, and the Cambodian National Rescue Party, the sole credible opposition group, was dissolved by the courts for engaging in allegedly treasonous activity.