Diplomats from four European Union countries and a representative of the E.U. delegation to Cambodia met with staff of local human rights group Adhoc in Phnom Penh on Wednesday to discuss the government’s criminal charge against the organization’s long-serving human rights investigator Chan Soveth.
In an apparent display of support for Mr. Soveth, the Danish, French, Swedish and British diplomats posed shoulder-to-shoulder with senior Adhoc staff, including Mr. Soveth, for a widely distributed photograph of their meeting.
A statement released with the photograph was vague on details of the discussions with Adhoc, which has received a total of $2.6 million in funds from the E.U. for its human rights work in Cambodia since 2005.
“On this occasion, they [the diplomats] met with Adhoc staff members, including Mr. Chan Soveth, who has been summoned to appear before the investigating judge on 24 December at 2:30pm,” the statement says.
“Adhoc reiterates that it has always conducted its activities—investigating human rights violations, organizing trainings and providing assistance to individuals and communities affected by land and other conflicts—in accordance of the law.”
Mr. Soveth is scheduled to appear in court on Monday on charges of aiding an unnamed “perpetrator” in relation to a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province’s Broma village in May.
While the government has described the incident in terms of a rural rebellion, locals involved in the incident say they were merely attempting to prevent the confiscation of their farmland by a private rubber company.
The only serious violence associated with the event in May was the killing of a 14-year-old girl, who was shot dead by either police or military forces involved in the suppression, and later eviction, of the residents of Broma village.
Authorities have not investigated the teenager’s killing. But independent radio station owner Mam Sonando was jailed for 20 years in October after a court found him guilty of encouraging the alleged secessionists. Mr. Sonando was not in the country at the time of the events.
Bun Ratha, the convicted ringleader of the secessionist movement, was sentenced in absentia to 30 years in jail, but is currently in hiding overseas.
If found guilty of aiding a “perpetrator” as charged, Mr. Soveth could face up to three years in jail.
Mr. Soveth said yesterday that the visiting diplomats had also discussed the ongoing criminal cases against several of Adhoc’s other senior staff members.
“The diplomats raised the concerns over the lawsuits against Adhoc’s human rights defenders, such as the case of Pen Bonnar, Chhay Thy, Sam Chankea and the latest criminal lawsuit against me,” Mr. Soveth said.
“After the meeting, we also expressed our utmost concern that I am facing criminal charges and our concern about my possible detention,” he said.
“We requested that the diplomats help by intervening to strengthen respect of human rights, law enforcement and [prevent] lawsuits against human rights defenders and journalists,” Mr. Soveth continued.
Representatives of the embassies that participated in Wednesday’s meeting will also be in attendance at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday for his questioning by the investigating judge, he added.
Mr. Bonnar and Mr. Thy, Adhoc’s former and current Ratanakkiri provincial coordinators, respectively, have been charged by the provincial court with inciting ethnic Tampoun villagers to violently protest against a private rubber company. Mr. Chankea, Adhoc’s Kompong Chhnang provincial coordinator, has been charged with defamation in a case involving an agro-industry company, which is owned by Chea Kheng, the wife of the Minister of Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem.
Diplomats who attended the meeting at Adhoc’s office would only say that they are following Mr. Soveth’s court case.
“We got information about the case, that’s all,” said Michael Engquist, human rights and good governance adviser at the Danish Embassy. “We’re following developments.”
“We are following it closely,” said Anette Dalstrom, first secretary at the Swedish Embassy.
Nicolas Baudouin, first secretary at the French Embassy, and Lesley Saunderson, deputy head of mission at the British Embassy, who were also present at the meeting, declined to comment.
In October, the European Parliament passed a scathing resolution accusing Cambodia of backsliding on human rights commitments. Earlier this month, E.U. Ambassador to Cambodia Jean-Francois Cautain commended the U.N.’s human rights envoy Surya Subedi for furthering the “promotion and protection of human rights” in Cambodia and advised the government to listen to the envoy’s recommendations.