CAMBODIA: The arrest of a senior politician committed to human rights and another prominent human rights activist on December 31, 2005 for organising human rights day activities on December 10

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is writing to direct your attention to the serious human rights violations committed by the arrest of Mr Kem Sokha and Mr Yeng Virak on December 31, 2005.

Mr Kem Sokha is a senior Cambodian politician, who has been a member of parliament since its inception in 1993 after the United Nation’s sponsored elections. In fact, both during and after the period of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia, Kem Sokha has been a prominent spokesperson for liberal democracy, which was introduced by the Cambodian Constitution of 1993. His work was recognised by the new government and he was appointed to head the Human Rights Commission created after the elections, in which capacity he served for several years. He is a nationally known and well respected politician who has consistently advocated for democracy. He is also the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

Mr Yeng Virak is the director of the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC) and is also a well known human rights activist. Both Mr Yeng Virak and Mr Kem Sokha were members of the organising committee for activities to mark international human rights day on December 10. These activities attracted a large crowd from all over Cambodia, with over 10,000 persons. The activities and demonstrations were held peacefully, without any violence.

For this reason, the December 31 arrests of these two individuals came as a shock to everyone. On learning of the arrests, embassy officials from the United States, Britain, Germany and many other countries as well as representatives from the United Nations Cambodian Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, many international human rights and development agencies and local human rights groups, gathered to witness the arrests.

Mr Kem Sokha and Mr Yeng Virak were arrested and taken to court separately, despite protests by their lawyers and others. It appears that the alleged charges against them are based on the contents of alleged banners exhibited on December 10. The organisers of the December 10 event stated that some unknown persons attempted to exhibit banners accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of being a communist and a traitor who sold away Cambodian land to Vietnam; the use of these banners was immediately stopped by the organisers. Given past experiences in Cambodia, there is concern that these banners were part of a plot to implicate the organisers.

Both Mr Kem Sokha and Mr Yeng Virak are currently in prison awaiting further inquiries. Under Cambodian law, persons can be detained pending such inquiries for long periods of time. The conditions of Cambodian prisons are known to be extremely poor and unhygienic.

The last few months have seen several persons sentenced to imprisonment on defamation charges, while many others have fled the country to avoid arrest. The arrests of Mr Kem Sokha and Mr Yeng Virak are seen as part of the same scheme to arrest all opposition members and government critics. Their detention comes 10 days after Sam Rainsy, the head of the main opposition party, was convicted in absentia of defaming Mr Hun Sen and the national assembly speaker. It brings the number of government critics and rights activists who have either been jailed pending trial or have fled the country in the last few months to nine. 

The United States ambassador, Joseph Mussomeli, described the arrest of these two individuals as another step down the wrong path, with little left to a real democracy. 

Under the sponsorship of the UN, the international community has invested enormously in Cambodia, with a view towards restoring stability and establishing responsible governance for a people who have undergone one of the worst catastrophes in human history. The introduction of liberal democracy through the 1993 Constitution was seen as an encouragement for the people to rebuild their lives and regain their dignity. However, the present attempts to silence critics and reintroduce a fear psychosis will severely undermine the few steps towards democracy and human rights taken by the country.

The AHRC therefore requests you to get the United Nations as a whole, through its Security Council, to respond urgently to the situation that has developed in Cambodia. The United Nations also has an obligation to those persons in Cambodia who have heeded its call for the development of democratic governance and a culture of human rights. Mr Kem Sokha and Mr Yeng Virak are a symbol of many thousands who wish to pursue that path of democracy. The AHRC therefore requests you to also intervene on behalf of both these men in order to get them released from prison immediately. 

Yours sincerely,

Basil Fernando
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission 

Document Type : Open Letter
Document ID : AHRC-OL-001-2006
Countries : Cambodia,
Issues : Administration of justice, Judicial system, Rule of law,