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CAMBODIA: Action neeeded over persecuted human rights defenders

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licadho-logo-bg.gifFORUM-ASIA's member in Cambodia, LICADHO, calls for the authorities to take concrete steps to redress the persecution of human rights defenders, including by bringing the killers of trade unionist Hy Vuthy to justice and ensuring that Khmer Kampuchea Krom activist monk Tim Sakhorn is able to return to Cambodia from Vietnam.

"Cambodia is a dangerous place for human rights defenders and this will not change until some real action is taken to prevent and punish attacks against them," said LICADHO president Kek Galabru.

"The authorities cannot continue to commit or ignore serious abuses against people who try to defend or promote human rights." A LICADHO briefing paper issued today, entitled "Attacks and Threats Against Human Rights Defenders in Cambodia 2007", records more than 50 incidents of intimidation or violence against rights defenders last year.

They include the February murder of Hy Vuthy and the arbitrary deportation of monk Tim Sakhorn to Vietnam in June.

"The cases of Hy Vuthy and Tim Sakhorn are typical of the impunity which is granted to those who attack human rights defenders," said LICADHO director Naly Pilorge.

"More than a year after Hy Vuthy's murder, his killers still walk free. Similarly, the persons responsible for ordering the unlawful deportation of Tim Sakhorn to Vietnam have also gone unpunished."

Hy Vuthy, an official of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, was shot dead on February 24, 2007.

Phnom Penh police chief Touch Naroth has repeatedly said that police have identified two suspects and that court warrants have been obtained for their arrest. He has consistently refused to name the suspects and no-one has been arrested.

According to other information received recently by LICADHO, however, no arrest warrants have been issued and the court has in fact officially closed its investigation because no perpetrators have been identified.

"Contrary to what the police have been saying for more than a year, we have been told that the court has not issued any arrest warrants and that in fact it never even received a police report about the killing," said Naly Pilorge.

"Now it seems that the court has closed the case completely."

Naly Pilorge continued: "The police have some very serious questions to answer about their actions in this case, including why have they claimed that arrest warrants were issued and what information if any did they actually give to the court about this murder?"

Tim Sakhorn, an outspoken advocate for Khmer Krom rights who was accused by Cambodian authorities of harming Cambodia-Vietnam relations, was secretly and unlawfully deported to Vietnam last June.

There, he was convicted of "undermining national unity" and sentenced to a year in prison. Released from prison three months ago, he is reportedly now under house arrest and cannot return to Cambodia.

"Tim Sakhorn never should have been in prison at all, because he committed no crime, and he is still not a free man," said Naly Pilorge.

"The Cambodian government should talk to Vietnam to ensure that Tim Sakhorn is free to return to Cambodia, where he lived for 30 years before his unlawful deportation, to be reunited with his family here."

In addition to high-profile cases such as that of Hy Vuthy and Tim Sakhorn, LICADHO's briefing paper also cites numerous other cases of intimidation, legal action or violence against human rights defenders in 2007.

Victims included unionists, Khmer Krom monks (including those beaten by police when they tried to publicly demonstrate to call for the release of Tim Sakhorn), lawyers, journalists, and private citizens who tried to help Montagnard asylum seekers. But by far the greatest number of reported threats and attacks in 2007 were against grassroots activists who tried to help their communities to defend themselves from land-grabbing.

"Land activists continue to face threats, harassment, violence, unwarranted criminal charges and even imprisonment on a regular basis," said Kek Galabru. "It is testament to their courage that, despite the risks, many people are still willing to stand up to defend the land rights of their communities."

The long-standing pattern of intimidation and violence against rights defenders over recent years has continued so far in 2008. "Continuing attacks against land activists and trade unionists, as well as the murder of journalist Khim Sambo two months ago, show that little has changed and that human rights defenders remain under great threat in Cambodia," said Kek Galabru.