Cambodian prisoners, including Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, arrive by prison truck at the Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, August 18, 2021.
© 2021 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
(New York) – The Cambodian government passed new rights-abusing laws expanding internet surveillance and censorship in 2021, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2022. Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarian government continued its crackdown on activists, human rights defenders, the political opposition, and independent media.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen, like many autocrats, used the Covid-19 pandemic to tighten his oppressive rule,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet, despite the arbitrary arrests and mass trials of rights defenders and political activists, foreign governments and the UN country team were noticeably silent, failing to hold Hun Sen and other abusive officials responsible.”
In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, showing that the appeal of democracy remains strong. Meanwhile, autocrats are finding it more difficult to manipulate elections in their favor. Still, he says, democratic leaders must do a better job of meeting national and global challenges and of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends.
Covid-19 outbreaks hit Cambodia’s prisons hard because of the government’s failure to take adequate steps in response to early warnings. Lockdowns in February caused a food emergency and medical crisis in Covid-19-affected areas, which disproportionately affected low-income
populations. In March the government passed a rights-abusing Covid-19 law, under which alleged violations of Covid-19 measures could be punished by up to 20 years in prison and other disproportionate penalties.
Ahead of the elections scheduled for 2022 and 2023, the Cambodian People’s Party government subjected former members of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to harassment and arbitrary arrests, forcing many to flee into exile. The politically motivated treason case against the party head Kem Sokha remains pending, while the exiled party leader Sam Rainsy and eight senior officials face prison sentences of up to 25 years on bogus charges.
In 2021 the government stepped up attacks against environmental and youth activists as well as human rights defenders. Currently, Cambodia holds at least 60 political prisoners in notoriously overcrowded prisons.
In February the parliament passed a law for a National Internet Gateway, which will provide the government with legal authority to monitor all internet activities and block and disconnect internet connections. Critical commentary on social media and independent reporting was further suppressed in 2021, using so-called “fake news labels,” effective bans on independent reporting, and legal threats and action against coverage of police and government actions.
“The Cambodian government should stop using repressive measures to silence people speaking out about social, political, and environmental issues,” Robertson said.