The family members of seven young social and environmental activists arrested a year ago urged the Cambodian government on Tuesday to drop the incitement charges against them, echoing a letter by U.N. human rights experts calling on the government to hold their trial or unconditionally release the detainees.
The activists were detained in August and September 2020 for joining a peaceful protest at Freedom Park in the suburbs of the capital Phnom Penh demanding the release of imprisoned human rights defenders, including a popular union leader.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged the seven with “inciting to commit a felony or inciting to commit serious social unrest.” They have been held in pre-trial detention and face between six months and two years in prison and a fine if found guilty.
Their trial began on Dec. 30, 2020, but a hearing scheduled for this March 2 was postponed to June and later further postponed due to the deteriorating COVID-19 situation in the country. The court also denied their bail requests.
Chhoeun Daravy, Hun Vannak, Koet Saray, Tha Lavy, and Eng Malai were members of the Khmer Thavarak youth group, which advocates for the protection of human rights and social justice and raises awareness about environmental issues in Cambodia.
Muong Sopheak and Mean Prommony belonged to the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, a group that mobilizes students to engage in issues concerning social development, good governance, and the sustainable use of natural resources.
Relatives of the seven who spoke to RFA agreed with calls by Cambodian and international human rights groups, the U.N., the United States and other democratic countries that have all recently urged the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to release about 85 jailed activists.
Five U.N. rights experts, including Vitit Muntarbhorn, special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, sent a letter dated June 10 to the Cambodian government expressing concerns about the detentions of the youth activists.
“It is very concerning that these human rights defenders were arrested because of their organizing and participating in demonstrations of solidarity and protest against the arrest of their colleagues and other Cambodian human rights defenders, thus violating their inherent rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of expression,” the experts said in the letter.
They cited a provision in Cambodia’s Penal Code about the extension of pre-trial detention during which those accused must be brought to trial. The provision states that if a charged person is not called to appear before the trial court within these four months, the charged person shall be automatically released.“
‘They committed no offense’
Koet Vy, the younger sister of Koet Saray, said she supported a proposal by rights experts demanding the release of the youths.
“My brother has been detained for a long time and he has not committed of any crimes,” she said. “He should have been released. Now COVID-19 infections [are on the rise], and he is in a very difficult situation.”
Mean Samnop, the brother of Mean Prommony, said that the continued detention of the seven youths has caused his family mental anguish and brought no benefit to the government or society.
“It has been 10 months now,” he told RFA. “I do not understand. They committed no offense, so why do they have to be imprisoned? I support the [U.N. demands] that they be released.”
Chin Malin, secretary of state of the Ministry of Justice and vice chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, told the Phnom Penh Post on Monday that the statements by the five international human rights experts were based on reports from pro-opposition groups and that there is no solid legal basis for the activists’ release.
Cambodian civil society officials said they supported calls for the activists’ release.
Heng Kimhong, head of the research and advocacy program of the Cambodian Youth Network, urged the government to drop the charges against the seven youths for past actions and protests during which they demanded rights and freedoms guaranteed by the country’s constitution.
The activists’ activities did not cause as serious a social impact as the court charged, he said.
“If the detentions continue, they will seriously affect Cambodia’s reputation and affect the principle of justice, which says that justice must be ensured and provided quickly for the people of Cambodia,” Heng Kimhong said.
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