By Bridget Di Certo
UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi during a press conference in Phnom Penh this afternoon, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
UN Special Rapporteur Surya Subedi said today he remained “deeply concerned” about the culture of impunity and the situation of freedom of expression in Cambodia.
During a press conference held at the conclusion of his eighth mission to Cambodia, Subedi emphasised his concerns that key pieces of legislation, drafted nearly 20 years ago, to strengthen Cambodia’s judicial system had not yet been enacted.
Subedi also expressed regret and surprise that he was unable to meet with any senior government representatives during his visit.
“It is not clear to me why and how this situation came about,” Subedi said.
The Leeds University professor said he suspected there had been a communication gap, agitated by inaccurate media reporting during his weeklong mission. “I don’t know why it has come to this stage,” Subedi said.
“But I am not discouraged.” On Wednesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen used a public address to strongly assert Cambodia’s sovereignty over instructions from “foreigners” and take issue with what he appeared to believe were presumptuous statements about Subedi’s itinerary, which was reported in local media as including a visit to the King and the premier himself.
Subedi said yesterday he would be “looking to hear from the government through the appropriate channels” as to why it had not met with him. “I hope we can return to [a good] mode of operation in the future,” Subedi said.
He praised the government for its ongoing land-titling project and said he had disagreed with some of the approaches of civil society groups toward land issues, explaining that his legal approach to land issues in Cambodia does not “necessarily mesh” with the approach of civil society, though he did not elaborate on where the differences lay.
The country is already in election mode, Subedi noted when discussing his concerns relating to the excessive use of the law on incitement. He viewed the law as being abused to restrict freedom of expression and create an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship.
“The space for debate and dialogue is narrowing,” the international law expert said in an address that also highlighted his concerns about the passing of a recent circular restricting the operation of internet cafes.
The ongoing case of Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando was also on the professor’s mind, and he repeated several times that he had “intervened at the highest levels” in the case, without divulging details about what or whom this intervention involved.
Subedi refrained from categorising Sonando as a political prisoner, as there is no “international agreed definition of a political prisoner”, but he said it was something he was studying in depth.
Sonando was refused bail this morning by the Court of Appeal in a perfunctory hearing that has been criticised by local rights groups. Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he could not comment on why the government had not met with Subedi, because he was in Siem Reap.
Ek Tha, spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit, which has published several scathing opinion pieces about Subedi, said the likely reason government officials did not meet with the rapporteur was because they were too busy with high-priority tasks.
“There are many priorities of work that the government has been dealing with: poverty reduction, rebuilding the land with sustainable development, land titling project, fighting corruption,” Tha said.
“This government, we have been respecting human rights since day one, since this government toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979. The leader and this government pay great attention to human rights. They were the fighters against Pol Pot,” he said.
“You did not go through the suffering like I did. Right now, there are plenty of human rights: radios, newspapers, opposition party and radio and newspapers for the opposition. People hold protests, and there is freedom of expression.”
Subedi said he will soon begin writing his report about his mission to Cambodia, his fifth such report on the Kingdom.
To contact the reporters on this story: Bridget Di Certo at email@example.com