Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary government. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 National Assembly seats in the 2018 national election, having banned the main opposition party in 2017, turning the country into what is now a de facto one-party state. The prime minister since 1985, Hun Sen, continued in office. International observers, including foreign governments and international and domestic nongovernmental organizations, criticized the election as neither free nor fair and not representative of the will of the people.
The Cambodian National Police maintain internal security. The Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are responsible for external security and also have some domestic security responsibilities. The national police report to the Ministry of Interior, while the armed forces report to the Ministry of National Defense. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces, which have at times threatened force against opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and were generally perceived as an armed wing of the ruling party. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; arbitrary detention by the government; political prisoners and detainees; the absence of judicial independence; arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens, including pervasive electronic media surveillance; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence and threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel laws; restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; interference with the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions on political participation; diminishing ability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; pervasive corruption, including in the judiciary; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; and the worst forms of child labor, including forced or compulsory child labor.
A pervasive culture of impunity continued. There were credible reports that government officials, including police, committed abuses with impunity, and in most cases the government took little or no action. Government officials and their family members were generally immune to prosecution.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There was at least one report that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. On January 1, Tuy Sros, one of five persons arrested in a land dispute in Banteay Meanchey Province, died in police custody. Two others arrested with him reported that military police beat Sros unconscious and refused to provide medical treatment. After widespread coverage of the case in local media, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered an investigation, and two police officers were arrested.
Eyewitnesses reported that on June 4, several armed men abducted Thai prodemocracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit outside his Phnom Penh apartment in broad daylight. Several human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGO) accused the Cambodian government of not actively investigating Wanchalearm’s disappearance, and alleged that Thai and Cambodian authorities may have colluded on the case. Authorities initially publicly denied an abduction had taken place, claiming that official records showed Wanchalearm had left the country three years earlier. The government launched an investigation into the case on June 9 after reportedly receiving a request to do so from the Thai embassy. As of year’s end, the Cambodian police investigation had not uncovered any suspects, a possible motive, or the whereabouts of Wanchalearm. A media officer of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva raised concerns that the incident “may now comprise an enforced disappearance.” As of November the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances was conducting an investigation.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution prohibits such practices; however, beatings and other forms of physical mistreatment of police detainees and prison inmates reportedly continued during the year.
There were credible reports military and police officials used physical and psychological abuse and occasionally severely beat criminal detainees, particularly during interrogation. On May 8, the aunt of Orn Tith alleged that prison guards had tortured and murdered her nephew, who was in custody for stealing and damaging a car, and that his body was covered in bruises when she went to retrieve it. In a report released in May, Amnesty International wrote that authorities “routinely subject suspects to torture and other forms of ill-treatment” as part of the nation’s “war on drugs” campaign. According to eyewitnesses, land rights activist Tuy Sros was tortured before his death (see section 1.a.).
Although the law requires police, prosecutors, and judges to investigate all complaints, including those of police abuse, in practice there was impunity for government officials and family members for human rights abuses. Judges and prosecutors rarely conducted independent investigations. Although the law allows for investigations into accusations of government abuse, in practice cases were pursued only when there was a public outcry or they drew the prime minister’s attention. If abuse cases came to trial, presiding judges usually passed down verdicts based only on written reports from police and witness testimony. In general police received little professional training on protecting or respecting human rights.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions remained harsh and in many cases life threatening.
Physical Conditions: Gross overcrowding was a problem. According to the Ministry of Interior, as of April authorities held an estimated 39,000 prisoners and detainees in 29 prisons designed to hold a maximum of 11,000 prisoners. The ministry reported the government’s “war on drugs” had exacerbated overcrowding as approximately 22,000 of the prisoners and detainees were held for drug trafficking crimes.
In most prisons there was no separation of adult and juvenile prisoners (including children living with incarcerated mothers) or of persons convicted of serious crimes, minor offenses, or in pretrial detention. According to a local NGO, as of January prisons held 43 pregnant women and 103 children living with their mothers. The General Department of Prisons did not report how many prisoners died in custody. In February a five-month-old baby living with his mother in a prison died. The court had sent the child’s mother, eight months pregnant at the time, into pretrial detention in June 2019 on charges of possessing a small amount of illegal drugs. She was still awaiting trial when her baby died.
Allowances for food and other necessities were inadequate in many cases. Family members often provided these at least in part and sometimes had to pay a bribe to do so. Observers continued to report that authorities misappropriated allowances for prisoners’ food, exacerbating malnutrition and disease. Authorities did not provide updated figures on access to clean water; as of 2016, only 18 of 29 prisons provided clean water. Prisons did not have adequate facilities for persons with mental or physical disabilities. NGOs also alleged prison authorities gave preferential treatment, including increased access to visitors, transfer to better cells, and the opportunity to leave cells during the day, to prisoners whose families could pay bribes. According to a local NGO, groups of inmates organized and directed by prison guards violently attacked other prisoners. NGOs reported significant drug use by prisoners, made possible by bribing guards.
The country had seven government and three private drug rehabilitation centers. Most observers agreed the majority of detainees in such facilities were there involuntarily, committed by police or family members without due process. According to the National Authority for Combating Drugs, no detainee was younger than age 18. Observers noted employees at the centers frequently controlled detainees with physical restraints and subjected them to intense physical exercise.
Administration: There were no prison ombudsmen or other government advocates for prisoners. Prisoners could submit complaints about alleged abuse to judicial authorities through lawyers, but a large number of prisoners and detainees could not afford legal representation. The government stated it investigated complaints and monitored prison and detention center conditions through the General Department of Prisons, which reportedly produced biannual reports on prison management. The prisons department, however, did not release the reports despite frequent requests by civil society organizations.
Authorities routinely allowed prisoners and detainees access to visitors, although rights organizations confirmed families sometimes had to bribe prison officials to visit prisoners. There were credible reports officials demanded bribes before allowing prisoners to attend trials or appeal hearings, before releasing inmates who had served their full term of imprisonment, or before allowing inmates to exit their cells. NGOs reported unequal punishment among the inmates, noting that wealthy prisoners were better treated than others, while greater restrictions such as stricter surveillance and not being allowed to receive gifts from visitors were placed on human right defenders.
Independent Monitoring: The government allowed, subject to preconditions and restrictions, international and domestic human rights groups, including the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Human Rights Commission, to visit prisons and provide human rights training to prison guards. Some NGOs reported limited cooperation from local authorities who, for example, generally made it difficult to gain access to pretrial detainees.
The Ministry of Interior required lawyers, human rights monitors, and other visitors to obtain permission prior to visiting prisoners–often from multiple government agencies depending on the case–and sometimes the government required NGOs to sign a formal memorandum of understanding delineating their roles during prison visits.
Although some local independent monitoring groups were able to meet privately with prisoners, others were not. A local human rights NGO that provides medical care to prisoners reported the government periodically refused requests to visit convicted prisoners who were members of an opposition political party. Another NGO reported the government accused it of harboring political bias and using its visits to embolden political prisoners. Representatives of the UN Human Rights Commission reported they were usually able to visit prisons and hold private meetings when interviewing a particular prisoner of interest.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and limits pretrial detention to a maximum of 18 months; however, the government in some cases did not respect these prohibitions, notably holding former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha under house arrest arbitrarily and well beyond the legal limit. After 26 months in pretrial detention, in November 2019 the government partially lifted judicial restrictions, effectively releasing him from house arrest, but not allowing him to travel abroad or engage in political activity. In addition the charges of treason against him still stood, and he remained under court supervision.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires police to obtain a warrant from an investigating judge prior to making an arrest, unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. The law allows police to take a person into custody and conduct an investigation for 48 hours, excluding weekends and government holidays, before they must file charges or release a suspect. In felony cases of exceptional circumstances prescribed by law, police may detain a suspect for an additional 24 hours with the approval of a prosecutor. Nevertheless, authorities routinely held persons for extended periods before charging them.
There was a bail system, but many prisoners, especially those without legal representation, had no opportunity to seek release on bail. Authorities routinely denied bail for politically sensitive cases.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of July a local NGO had recorded 16 arbitrary arrests. The actual number of arbitrary arrests and detentions was likely higher, since many victims in rural areas did not file complaints due to the difficulty of traveling to human rights NGO offices or due to concern for their family’s security. Authorities took no legal or disciplinary action against persons responsible for the illegal detentions.
On June 2, Koh Kong provincial authorities seized 18 activists’ bicycles and blocked them from proceeding further after they launched a cycling trip to the capital to draw attention to local environmental issues. Authorities initially claimed the group had to be screened for COVID-19, but after conducting nasal swabs, authorities confiscated their bicycles until the activists agreed to call off their plans rather than face arrest for “incitement.” Local rights NGOs described the government actions as politically motivated, pointing out that the group had not broken any laws.
The Ministry of Social Affairs and Vocational Training reported that in 2019 the government rounded up 1,000 homeless persons, beggars, persons with mental disabilities, and persons engaged in prostitution. Authorities placed them in social affairs centers without adequate medical treatment or food. In April the ministry acknowledged it had been unsuccessful in treating or reintegrating these individuals into society.
Pretrial Detention: Under the law police may arrest and detain accused persons for a maximum of 24 hours before allowing them access to legal counsel, but authorities routinely held prisoners incommunicado for several days before granting them access to a lawyer or family members. Government officials stated such prolonged detentions were frequently the result of the limited capacity of the court system. The law allows for a maximum pretrial detention of six months for misdemeanors and 18 months for felonies, but NGOs reported authorities held some accused in pretrial detention for longer than the legal maximums. Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees without legal representation. In April the Ministry of Interior reported holding 13,729 pretrial detainees, approximately one-third of all prisoners.
Detainees’ Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: A backlog of court cases and long delays in obtaining judicial rulings interfered with a person’s right to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of his or her detention. On May 18, the Justice Ministry launched a six-month campaign to resolve the backlog of nearly 40,000 court cases across the country.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence, exerting extensive control over the courts. Court decisions were often subject to political influence. Judicial officials, up to and including the chief of the Supreme Court, often simultaneously held positions in the ruling party, and observers alleged only those with ties to the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) or the executive received judicial appointments. At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined. In the continuing treason trial of former political opposition leader Kem Sokha, the government has given conflicting statements, at times insisting the court was acting independently, while at other times insisting the trial will last for “years” or that the outcome will depend on other factors, such as the EU’s partial withdrawal of trade benefits.
Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread. The judicial branch was very inefficient and could not assure due process.
Observers alleged the Bar Association of Cambodia heavily favored admission of CPP-aligned members at the expense of nonaligned and opposition attorneys and at times admitted unqualified individuals to the bar solely due to their political affiliation. Impartial analysts revealed that many applicants to the bar paid high bribes for admittance. On October 16, Ly Chantola, a supporter of the governing party who had helped draft the law dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was elected president of the Bar Association.
A shortage of judges and courtrooms delayed many cases. NGOs also believed court officials focused on cases that might benefit them financially. Court delays or corrupt practices often allowed accused persons to escape prosecution. There were widespread allegations that rich or powerful defendants, including members of the security forces, often paid victims and authorities to drop criminal charges. These allegations were supported by NGO reports and instances of rich defendants appearing free in public after their high-profile arrests were reported in the media without further coverage of court proceedings or final outcomes of the cases. Authorities sometimes urged victims or their families to accept financial restitution in exchange for dropping criminal charges or for failing to appear as witnesses.
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial; however, the judiciary rarely enforced this right.
Defendants are by law required to be promptly informed of the charges against them, presumed innocent, and have the right of appeal, but they often resorted to bribery rather than rely on the judicial process. Trials are not always public and frequently face delays due to court bureaucracy. Defendants have the right to be present at their trials and consult with an attorney, confront and question witnesses against them, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. The law, however, allows trials in absentia, and courts have convicted suspects in absentia. In felony cases, if a defendant cannot afford an attorney, the law requires the court to provide the defendant with free legal representation; however, the judiciary was not always able to provide legal counsel, and most defendants sought assistance from NGOs, pro bono representation, or “voluntarily” proceeded without legal representation. In the absence of the defense attorneys required in felony cases, trial courts routinely adjourned cases until defendants could secure legal representation, a process that often took months. Trials were typically perfunctory, and extensive cross-examination usually did not take place. NGOs reported sworn written statements from witnesses and the accused in many cases constituted the only evidence presented at trials. The courts offered free interpretation.
There was a critical shortage of trained lawyers, particularly outside the capital. The right to a fair public trial often was denied de facto for persons without means to secure counsel. A 2017 report by the International Commission of Jurists indicated the high cost of bribes needed to join the bar association was partly responsible for keeping the number of trained lawyers low, which helped raise lawyers’ income whether earned through legal or illegal means.
Authorities sometimes allegedly coerced confessions through beatings or threats or forced illiterate defendants to sign written confessions without informing them of the contents. Courts accepted such forced confessions as evidence during trials despite legal prohibitions against doing so. According to a human rights NGO that observed the appellate court for a year (2017-18), 10 defendants were threatened and 21 defendants were tortured to confess. The only appeals court is in Phnom Penh, and NGOs reported that fewer than half of defendants were present at their appeals because of transport problems from other parts of the country.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
As of August a local human rights NGO estimated authorities held at least 40 political prisoners or detainees, 23 of whom were officials or supporters of the dissolved political opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. More than 80 opposition party supporters and activists arrested in 2019 were released on bail with charges still pending and could face re-arrest any time.
On January 15, CNRP leader Kem Sokha’s trial began. Initially, only a limited audience–one diplomat plus interpreter from each embassy–was permitted to observe proceedings. Under public pressure the court relented, also permitting NGO representatives and independent media to attend. Hearings in Sokha’s case were indefinitely postponed in March due to COVID-19 concerns and as of November had not resumed. In July the court warned Sokha that his trips to provinces outside of Phnom Penh could be interpreted as “political activities”–banned under the terms of his court-supervised release from house arrest. On October 16, local government authorities temporarily stopped Sokha from distributing aid to flood victims in Banteay Meanchey Province, deeming it a “political activity.”
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The country has a system in place for hearing civil cases, and citizens are entitled to bring lawsuits seeking damages for human rights violations. Some administrative and judicial remedies were available. NGOs reported, however, that public distrust in the judicial system due to corruption and political control deterred many from filing lawsuits and that authorities often did not enforce court orders.
Forced collectivization and the relocation of much of the population under the Khmer Rouge left land ownership unclear. The land law states that any person who peacefully possessed private or state land (excluding public lands, such as parks) or inhabited state buildings without contest for five years prior to the 2001 promulgation of a law on restitution has the right to apply for a definitive title to that property. Most citizens, however, lacked the knowledge and means to obtain formal documentation of land ownership.
Provincial and district land offices continued to follow pre-2001 land registration procedures, which did not include accurate land surveys or opportunities for public comment. Land speculation in the absence of clear title fueled disputes in every province and increased tensions between poor rural communities and speculators. Some urban communities faced forced eviction to make way for commercial development projects.
Authorities continued to force inhabitants to relocate from land in dispute, although the number of cases declined in recent years. Some persons also used the threat of legal action or eviction to intimidate poor and vulnerable persons into selling their land at below-market values. As of July a local NGO reported 44 new cases of land grabbing and forced evictions. Another human rights NGO investigated 33 new cases of land grabbing as of June, affecting 1,327 families across the country.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Although the law provides for the privacy of residence and correspondence and prohibits illegal searches, NGOs reported police routinely conducted searches and seizures without warrants. The government routinely leaked personal correspondence and recordings of telephone calls by opposition and civil society leaders to government-aligned media.
NGOs and international media reported that in May the Press and Quick Reaction Unit of the cabinet published fake videos on social media in an attempt to smear the reputation of internationally renowned activist monk Luon Sovath. The videos of Sovath–known for his work documenting land rights abuses–included doctored recordings of his telephone conversations. The government used the social media postings as the reason for defrocking Sovath and charging him with sexual assault. Sovath subsequently fled the country and applied for political asylum in Switzerland.
Local authorities reportedly entered and searched community-based organizations and union offices.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
Although the constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage, in practice there is no such ability. By law the government has the ability to dissolve parties and ban individuals from party leadership positions and political life more broadly. The law also bars parties from using any audio, visual, or written material from a convicted criminal.
As of August only 12 of 118 CNRP officials barred from political activity from 2017-22 had applied for and been granted restoration of their political rights–three during the year and nine in 2019. Local experts and opposition party members complained the “rehabilitation” process is arbitrary, creates a false appearance of wrongdoing on the part of the banned politicians, and allows the prime minister to choose his own political opponents. The original ban on political activity followed the Supreme Court’s 2017 dissolution of the CNRP, a decision many decried as driven by political bias, noting that the decision was based on the accusation that its leader had committed “treason” before its leader was convicted on any charges. When the CNRP was dissolved, 5,007 local elected officials from the party were removed from their positions and replaced with CPP officials. The CPP dominates all levels of government from districts and provincial councils to the National Assembly.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The most recent national election occurred in 2018. Although 20 political parties participated, the largest opposition party, the CNRP, was excluded. The 19 non-CPP parties that competed in the election, many newly established, had limited support.
Although campaign laws require news outlets to give equal coverage to each party participating in an election, there was no evidence of the law’s enforcement during the 2018 election; news outlets gave significantly greater coverage to the CPP than to other parties. Given the decline in independent media outlets, government-controlled news outlets provided the majority of content and coverage prior to the election. This was particularly the case in rural areas, where voters had less access to independent media.
Approximately 600,000 ballots cast in 2018 were invalid, compared with an estimated 100,000 in the previous election. Observers argued this was a sign of protest; given the pressure to vote and the absence of the CNRP from the ballot, many voters chose to spoil their ballots intentionally rather than vote for a party. According to government figures, 83 percent of registered voters went to the polls. The ruling CPP won all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Government statistics could not be verified due to a lack of independent observers.
Most independent analysts considered the entire election process seriously flawed. Most diplomatic missions to the country declined to serve as official observers in the election. Major nonstate election observation bodies, including the Carter Center and Asian Network for Free Elections, also decided against monitoring the election after determining the election lacked basic credibility. The National Election Committee accused the international community of bias, arguing the international community supported it only when the CNRP was on the ballot. Although nominally independent, the government installed closed-circuit television cameras in the committee offices, enabling it to observe the committee’s proceedings.
Political Parties and Political Participation: As of July a local NGO reported that 55 political parties were registered with the Ministry of Interior. Excepting the CPP and several small progovernment parties, political parties suffered from a wide range of legalized discrimination, selective enforcement of the law, intimidation, and biased media coverage. These factors contributed significantly to the CPP’s effective monopolization of political power. Membership in the CPP was a prerequisite for many government positions.
As of July there had been 23 incidences of threats to political activists, according to a local NGO. On October 19, two assailants on a motorbike assaulted Din Varin, secretary general of the executive committee of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, while he was walking home from a cafe in Phnom Penh, hitting him on the face with a large rock. As of November at least 10 opposition officials suffered similar assaults, but the government has not arrested any suspects.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women and members of ethnic minorities in the political process, but cultural practices that relegate women to second-class status–epitomized by the Chbab Srey, a traditional code of conduct for women which dates back to the 14th century–limited women’s role in politics and government. Despite repeated vows by the CPP to increase female representation, the number of women elected to the National Assembly in the 2018 national election declined to 19, from 25 in the 2013 national election. The 2017 local elections saw participation for the first time of the Cambodia Indigenous People’s Democracy Party.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
There were multiple reports of a lack of official cooperation with human rights investigations and in some cases, intimidation of investigators by government officials. The government threatened legal action against three NGOs–Licadho, STT, and Central–over the publication of a report on the negative effects of microlending on loan recipients.
Approximately 25 human rights NGOs operated in the country, and a further 100 NGOs focused on other areas included some human rights matters in their work, but only a few actively organized training programs or investigated abuses.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: Although the government generally permitted visits by UN representatives with human rights responsibilities, authorities often turned down their requests for high-level meetings and denied them access to opposition officials, including Kem Sokha. Government spokespersons regularly chastised UN representatives publicly for their remarks on a variety of human rights problems.
Government Human Rights Bodies: There were three government human rights bodies: separate Committees for the Protection of Human Rights and Reception of Complaints in the Senate and National Assembly and the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, which reported to the prime minister’s cabinet. The Cambodian Human Rights Committee submitted government reports for international human rights review processes, such as the Universal Periodic Review, and issued responses to reports by international organizations and government bodies, but it did not conduct independent human rights investigations. Credible human rights NGOs considered the government committees of limited efficacy and criticized their role in vocally justifying the government crackdown on civil society and the opposition.
The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia continued to investigate and prosecute leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime who were most responsible for the atrocities committed between 1975 and 1979. The Extraordinary Chambers are a hybrid tribunal, with both domestic and international jurists and staff, governed by both domestic law and an agreement between the government and the United Nations. Two separate cases, those of Meas Muth and Ao An, remained before the chambers. In August the Supreme Court moved to close the latter case, as there was no agreement to indict Ao An. As of November, the Extraordinary Chambers had not ruled whether they would proceed with either of the remaining cases.