During the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh on November 20, President Obama asked us to join with U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William E. Todd in gathering Cambodian human rights organizations to discuss the state of human rights and civil society in Cambodia.
The courageous individuals we met represented many others who advocate daily, sometimes at personal risk, for the protection and strengthening of human rights in Cambodia. Much of our conversation centered around three issues: land rights, the rule of law, and free and fair elections.
Land tenure issues are a serious problem in Cambodia. Due to the lack of a dependable titling system and a weak judiciary, conflicts frequently arise over land rights. Even more troubling, the Cambodian government has at times forced families to relocate from their homes without due process or compensation. Residents who have protested these steps have been harassed, and some have been arrested and convicted on criminal charges.
Cambodia’s weak judicial system also faces many challenges. Suspects often spend long periods in pre-trial detention – Cambodian law allows for such detention for up to six months for misdemeanors and 18 months for felonies. At times, outspoken activists and opposition politicians have been given lengthy prison terms based on questionable evidence. Most notably, a well-known critic of the Prime Minister and owner of an independent radio station was recently imprisoned for 20 years based on what many observers described as inadequate evidence. Charges of defamation or disinformation – or threats of such charges – have been used as a means to intimidate journalists and human rights activists alike.
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