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 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 at times threatened force against opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and were generally perceived as an armed wing of the ruling party. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government; arbitrary detention by the government; political prisoners and detainees; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary interference in the private lives of citizens, including pervasive electronic media surveillance; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence and threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, criminal libel laws, and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious restrictions on political participation; serious and pervasive government corruption, including in the judiciary; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic or international human rights organizations; 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 and acts of corruption 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
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
In contrast with 2020, there were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. On January 13, the Battambang Provincial Court sentenced two military police officers, Sar Bunsoeung and Chhoy Ratana, to four and seven years in prison, respectively, and ordered them to pay between 20 and 30 million riels ($4,900 and $7,400) in compensation to the family for the January 2020 death of Tuy Sros, who died in police custody after being arrested in a land dispute in Banteay Meanchey Province. Two witnesses reported that military police beat Tuy and refused to provide medical treatment. By law those who commit “torture and the act of cruelty with aggravating circumstances” may be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in prison. The victims’ family appealed the sentence seeking stronger punishment; there were no reports of progress on the appeal as of October.
In contrast with 2020, there were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
On June 4, the one-year anniversary of Thai prodemocracy activist Wanchalearm Satsaksit’s disappearance, local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) released a statement calling the Cambodian government’s investigation a failure and a violation of international human rights obligations. Wanchalearm’s sister called on the Cambodian government to identify those responsible and bring them to justice.
Eyewitnesses reported that in June 2020 several armed men abducted Wanchalearm outside his Phnom Penh apartment. Authorities initially denied an abduction had taken place, claiming that official records showed Wanchalearm had left the country three years earlier. A representative of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva raised concerns that the incident “may now comprise an enforced disappearance.” In March the Cambodian government responded to the UN’s Committee on Enforced Disappearances, claiming that Wanchalearm was not on the list of residents in the apartment where the alleged abduction took place, that the vehicle seen in security camera footage of the alleged abduction was not registered, that three individuals who lived near the apartment said they had not witnessed any abduction, and that authorities could not find any further evidence from the security camera footage.
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.
NGOs and detainees reported that military and police officials used physical and psychological abuse and occasionally severely beat criminal detainees, particularly during interrogation. On April 3, local police in Battambang Province took Pich Theareth into custody for allegedly murdering his wife. Police later announced that Pich died of a heart attack a few hours after his arrest. Pich’s relatives alleged that he was beaten to death and posted photographs of his bruised body on social media and filed a complaint against police. On June 16, the National Antitorture Committee determined that Pich’s death was caused by “excessive torture” and requested that the National Police investigate the case. An NGO reported in September that the National Police had not filed any charges against the police officers involved.
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 their family members for human rights abuses. Judges and prosecutors rarely conducted independent investigations. Although the law allows for investigations into accusations of government abuse, cases were pursued only when there was a public outcry or when 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 July authorities held an estimated 39,000 prisoners and detainees, including 2,571 women, 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 July prisons held at least 25 pregnant women and 74 children living with their mothers. Between January and June, the General Department of Prisons reported there were at least 120 deaths in custody.
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, 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, transfers to better cells, and permission to leave cells during the day, to prisoners whose families paid bribes, while greater restrictions, such as stricter surveillance and denial of gifts from visitors, were placed on human rights defenders and political prisoners. According to a local NGO, prison gangs sometimes violently attacked other prisoners. NGOs reported significant drug use by prisoners, made possible by bribing guards.
The country had 11 government, three private, and four NGO-run inpatient drug rehabilitation centers. Most observers agreed most “patients” in such facilities were involuntarily detained, committed by police or family members without due process. According to the National Authority for Combating Drugs, no detainee was younger than age 18. The authority reported that from January to March, 9,267 drug users received treatment in these centers. Observers noted employees at the centers frequently controlled detainees with physical restraints and subjected them to intense physical exercise. Violence committed by other drug patients was also common. In January, Moy Somnang died at a hospital after he was beaten by other patients. A police officer reported that the “boss” of a criminal network operating at the facility ordered others to beat and torture Moy soon after he arrived at the center.
After COVID-19 began spreading widely throughout the country due to an outbreak in February, officials severely limited access to prisons for family members, attorneys, consular officials, and other outside representatives. Lawyers defending detained labor leader Rong Chhun were not able to communicate with their client and did not know whether Chhun was sick or had been vaccinated until a prosecutor informed attendees in an open court hearing on June 8. There were some reports of COVID-19 spreading uncontrolled through overcrowded detention facilities before the government vaccinated most of the prison population. As of November the government maintained strict restrictions on outside visitation. According to prison officials, as of September the government had provided COVID-19 vaccinations to more than 90 percent of prisoners and detainees throughout the country.
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 produces internal biannual reports on prison management. The prison department, however, did not release any reports despite frequent requests from civil society organizations.
Before COVID-19 pandemic protocols were put in place in February, authorities routinely allowed prisoners and detainees access to visitors, although human 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 terms of imprisonment, or before allowing inmates to exit their cells.
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 Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to visit prisons and provide human rights training to prison guards, although COVID-19 policies affected attempts to arrange visits. 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), and sometimes the government required NGOs to sign a formal memorandum of understanding delineating their roles during prison visits. The government largely halted prison visits after COVID-19 began spreading widely throughout the country in February. 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 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 commissioner 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 did not always respect these prohibitions.
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 in politically sensitive cases, leading to lengthy pretrial detention before trial begins.
Arbitrary Arrest: As of August observers recorded at least 68 arbitrary arrests, including 14 political activists, 21 journalists, 10 environmental activists, and four land rights activists. The actual number of arbitrary arrests and detentions was likely higher, since victims in rural areas may not have filed complaints due to the difficulty of traveling to human rights NGO offices or because of concern for their family’s security. Authorities took no legal or disciplinary action against persons responsible for illegal detentions.
In February, Ministry of Environment officers arrested and arbitrarily detained five environmental activists for investigating illegal logging, according to Amnesty International. They were released three days later.
Former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha continued to be held under house arrest arbitrarily and well beyond the legal limit. Following Sokha’s 2017 arrest and after 26 months in pretrial detention, in 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. The charges of treason against him were pending as of December.
Pretrial Detention: As of July the Ministry of Interior reported holding 13,549 pretrial detainees, approximately one-third of all prisoners. Government officials stated that 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 those legal maximums. In cases of “incitement,” a charge commonly levied against political and environmental activists, no individuals were granted bail, according to reports; every known “incitement” suspect was held in pretrial detention until the end of their trial, almost always beyond the statutory minimum sentence of six months. In some cases the period spent in pretrial detention was longer than the minimum sentence for the crime detainees were to be tried for. Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees without legal representation. 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.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: The government made significant progress clearing a backlog of court cases and long delays in obtaining judicial rulings, which had interfered with the right to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of detention. On June 29, the Ministry of Justice reported that it had expedited and resolved 96 percent of approximately 40,000 backlogged criminal cases after a year-long effort.
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 Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) or the executive received judicial appointments. Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread. The judicial branch was inefficient and could not assure due process. At times the outcome of trials appeared predetermined.
The government significantly increased the use of arbitrary charges of “incitement” over the last two years, using the law to charge criminally political opposition leaders and their supporters, labor and environmental activists, and citizens who make politically sensitive comments, including social media posts about the border with Vietnam, the government’s COVID-19 response, relations with China, and unflattering comments about senior government officials. The law criminalizes the “direct incitement to commit a felony or disturb social security,” a vague standard commonly used to suppress and punish peaceful political speech and dissent. By the end of 2020, the government reportedly filed at least 200 cases of incitement, up from approximately 40 in 2019 and no more than 20 in previous years. This included a mass filing of incitement charges against approximately 120 individuals in November 2020, most of whom were associated with the opposition CNRP. There was no report that anyone had ever been acquitted of an incitement charge; individuals with a criminal record may not hold public office until the king grants clemency after a request from the prime minister.
In the long-suspended treason trial of former political opposition leader Kem Sokha, the government gave conflicting statements, at times insisting the court was acting independently, while at other times insisting the trial would last for “years,” or that the outcome would depend on other factors, such as the EU’s partial withdrawal of trade benefits.
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. Analysts revealed that many applicants to the bar paid high bribes for admittance.
A shortage of judges and courtrooms continued to delay 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 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 informed promptly of the charges against them, be 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. 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 at times convicted suspects in absentia with no defense representation. 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 a required defense attorney in a felony case, 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 that 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.
Authorities sometimes allegedly coerced confessions through beatings or threats or forced defendants to sign written confessions without informing them of the contents. Courts accepted forced confessions as evidence in trial despite legal prohibitions against doing so. According to a human rights NGO’s random sample of 148 appeals court proceedings in the first half of the year, eight individuals reported that judicial police had used torture or violence to force them to confess during their investigations. For years NGOs reported that fewer than half of all known defendants were present at their appeals because of difficulties traveling to the capital from other parts of the country.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
As of October a local human rights NGO estimated that authorities held nearly 30 political prisoners and detainees.
In January a Phnom Penh court found prominent labor leader Rong Chhun guilty of “incitement to commit a felony” and sentenced him to the maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment. The court also ordered him and two codefendants to pay the Cambodian Boundary Commission up to 400 million riels ($100,000) in restitution. Chhun was arrested in July 2020 after he visited the border with Vietnam and spoke to the press about concerns over border demarcation. Chhun was subsequently released on probation after an appeals court suspended a portion of his sentence in November.
In December the court in charge of the treason case against CNRP leader Kem Sokha set a trial date of January 19, 2022.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
Extraterritorial Killing, Kidnapping, Forced Returns, or Other Violence or Threats of Violence: According to Human Rights Watch, Cambodian refugees hiding in Bangkok reported escalating levels of surveillance and threats by unidentified persons whom they believed were under the direction of Cambodian government officials. In October the prime minister publicly called for a UNHCR-registered CNRP activist living in Thailand to be “eliminated” and urged police to search for him, including searching “abroad.” In November the government of Thailand refouled three Cambodian opposition activists who were UNHCR-registered refugees. They were immediately arrested upon arrival in Cambodia.
Efforts to Control Mobility: Some government critics and opposition politicians were in self-imposed foreign exile. In some cases the government subsequently took steps to block exiles’ return, including revoking their Cambodian passports.
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.
Property Seizure and Restitution
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 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 disputed land, although the number of cases declined in recent years. On September 12, police arrested more than 30 displaced rice farmers and villagers protesting being forcibly removed from their land with inadequate compensation to make way for Phnom Penh’s new international airport and surrounding development. On September 20, thousands of displaced villagers from three provinces blocked the road to the Land Ministry, demanding the government’s help in resolving land disputes. 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 49 new cases of land grabbing and forced evictions. Another human rights NGO investigated 31 new cases of land grabbing as of June, affecting 2,659 families across the country.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Although the law provides for the privacy of residences and correspondence and prohibits illegal searches, NGOs reported police routinely conducted searches and seizures without warrants. The government continued to leak personal correspondence and recordings of telephone calls by opposition and civil society leaders to government-aligned media. On June 24, police arrested Kak Sovanchay, a 16-year-old boy reportedly with autism, for allegedly “insulting the government” in posts he made in a private chat group on the social media app Telegram that related to his father, a jailed CNRP official. Kak was convicted and later released on probation after an appeals court suspended a portion of his sentence in November.