Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
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.
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.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The April 2020 state of emergency law, which the prime minister claimed was necessary because of the COVID-19 pandemic, allows the government to ban or limit freedoms of travel, assembly, and information distribution and the ability to leave one’s home during a declared emergency. NGOs and UN experts condemned the law, arguing that it lacked an effective oversight mechanism and could be used to infringe on the rights of the people. As of November the government had not declared a state of emergency under this law.
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media. In 2017, however, the government began carrying out a sustained campaign to eliminate independent news media and dissenting voices in the country and increasingly restrict free expression; many individuals and institutions reported widespread self-censorship.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Although the constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government did not respect this right. In a survey covering the nine months to January, 64 percent of NGOs and 28 percent of trade unions stated they believed they were free to assemble peacefully.
The law requires advance notification for protests, marches, or demonstrations, although authorities inconsistently enforced this requirement. One provision requires five days’ notice for most peaceful demonstrations, while another requires 12 hours’ notice for impromptu gatherings on private property or protests at designated venues and limits such gatherings to 200 persons. By law provincial or municipal governments issue demonstration permits at their discretion. Lower-level government officials, particularly in Phnom Penh, generally denied requests unless the national government specifically authorized the gatherings. All levels of government routinely denied permits to groups critical of the ruling party. Authorities cited the need for stability and public security – terms left undefined in the law and therefore subject to wide interpretation – as reasons for denying permits.
In May a court sentenced Long Kunthea and several of her associates to 18 months’ imprisonment for “incitement” for planning a peaceful, one-person demonstration aimed at raising concerns about environmental matters and urban development. Long and her associates had planned to post a video of the demonstration online. In November an appeals court suspended their sentences and placed them on probation.
In August, Neth Savoeun, the National Police chief and nephew of Prime Minister Hun Sen, appointed Dy Vichea, deputy commissioner of the National Police and the prime minister’s son-in-law, as the head of a working group publicly tasked with searching for individuals who were “inciting other villagers to protest in land disputes.” NGOs and land activists condemned the working group, arguing that its purpose was to crack down on land rights activists.
There were credible reports the government prevented associations and NGOs from organizing human rights-related events and meetings; those NGOs failed to receive permission from local authorities. Government authorities occasionally cited the law to break up meetings and training programs deemed hostile to the government.
Despite these restrictions, media reported on unauthorized public protests related to a variety of matters, including land and labor disputes and demands to release political prisoners. Since the July 2020 arrest of union leader Rong Chhun, authorities on multiple occasions forcibly dispersed protesters demanding his release, leading to at least four injuries. In October a court sentenced 10 youth activists from the Khmer Thavrak group to 14- or 15-month prison terms and a two-million-riel ($490) fine each for joining peaceful protests in August and September 2020 calling for Rong’s release.
In June approximately 100 soldiers fired on land rights protesters in Kandal Province; one demonstrator was shot in the shoulder but survived.
On July 10, the fifth anniversary of the death of prominent government critic Kem Ley, authorities banned any gathering at the Caltex gas station where he was shot, citing COVID-19 health protocols. Thousands gathered at the station in previous years to commemorate Kem Ley on the anniversary of his killing.
Freedom of Association
The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government continued to restrict it, targeting specifically groups it believed could be involved in political dissent. The law requires all associations and NGOs to register and to be politically neutral, which restricts the right to association and those organizations’ right to free expression.
Vague provisions in several laws prohibiting any activity that may “jeopardize peace, stability, and public order” or harm “national security, national unity, traditions, and the culture of Cambodian society” created a substantial risk of arbitrary and politicized restriction of the right of association. According to critics, the laws on associations and trade unions establish heavily bureaucratic, multistep registration processes that lack both transparency and administrative safeguards, thereby reinforcing legal and political objections to registering groups. Laws on reporting activities and finances, including the disclosure of all successful funding proposals, financial or grant agreements, and bank accounts also impose burdensome obligations that allow officials to restrict or close organizations for petty or arbitrary reasons. Some NGOs and unions complained that police carefully monitored their activities and intimidated participants by sending uniformed or plainclothes police to observe their meetings and training sessions.
c. Freedom of Religion
d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The government restricted the movement of persons into and out of certain “red zones” in several cities at various points throughout the year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, reportedly causing significant cash and supply shortages. On April 29, more than 100 Phnom Penh residents protested severe restrictions in the red zones, pointing to acute food shortages.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
Rape and Domestic Violence: Rape and domestic violence were significant problems. The law, which does not specify the sex of a victim, criminalizes rape and “indecent assault.” Rape is punishable by five to 30 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is not specifically mentioned in the law, but the underlying conduct may be prosecuted as “rape,” “causing injury,” or “indecent assault.” Charges for rape were rare. The law criminalizes domestic violence and assigns penalties ranging from one to 15 years’ imprisonment.
Rape and domestic violence were likely underreported due to fear of reprisal, social stigma, discrimination, and distrust of police and the judiciary. Women comprised a small proportion of judicial officials, which likely contributed to underreporting of rape and domestic abuse. NGOs reported authorities inadequately enforced domestic violence law and avoided involvement in domestic disputes.
Rape and domestic violence sometimes led to death. Most observers believed neither authorities nor the public generally regarded domestic violence as a criminal offense.
In one example, Heng Sear, a wealthy businessman with connections to the government, was accused of sexual assault by university student and former beauty pageant contestant Mean Pich Rita who, after refusing Heng’s advances, was arrested in May for allegedly stealing his cell phone. She was quickly released after a public outcry, but police took no action against Heng.
The Ministries of Information and Women’s Affairs implemented a code of conduct for media reporting on violence against women, which bans publication of a survivor’s personal identifiable information, photographs of victims, depictions of a woman’s death or injury, depictions of nudity, and the use of certain offensive or disparaging words against women.
Sexual Harassment: The law criminalizes sexual harassment, imposing penalties of six days’ to three months’ imprisonment and modest fines. Workplace sexual harassment was believed to be widespread.
As of September no legal action had been taken against Ouk Kosal, the former police chief of Kampong Thom Province. In July 2020 four female police officers submitted a letter to Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Sar Kheng reporting that Kosal sexually assaulted them. The letter stated they had reported the abuse on multiple occasions since 2018, but the case had not progressed. National Police chief Neth Savoeun stated that police did not take action because they “wanted to protect the dignity of the women.”
Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Cultural barriers played a significant role in limiting women’s access to contraceptives. Unmarried, sexually active persons were often too shy or embarrassed to ask for contraceptives at health centers, clinics, and pharmacies.
The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services to survivors of sexual violence, including emergency contraception.
According to the country’s 2019 census, the maternal mortality rate was 141 deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 178 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2015. Major factors influencing high maternal mortality rates included shortages of adequate health facilities, medications, and skilled birth attendants.
Discrimination: The constitution and law provide for equal rights for women and men, including equal pay for equal work and equal status in marriage. The government did not effectively enforce the law. For the most part, women had equal property rights, the same legal right as men to initiate divorce proceedings, and equal access to education, but cultural traditions and greater parenting responsibilities than men limited the ability of women to reach senior positions in business and government or participate in the workforce.
The government expected women to dress and comport themselves according to “Khmer traditions.” In March a female police officer was forced to apologize for a Facebook post showing her nursing her baby while in uniform, leading to an outcry from civil society groups and some government officials, who came to the woman’s defense. On June 5, authorities arrested a woman selling lotions online for “ruining women’s honor” and accused her of using inappropriate and sexual words during an online promotion of her product.
Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination
The constitution grants equality before the law and offers the same rights to all citizens regardless of their race, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, birth origin, social status, wealth, or other status. The law criminalizes discrimination and violence if due to “membership in a particular ethnicity, nationality, race, or religion.”
Experts noted an increase in negative attitudes toward Chinese nationals in the country, in part due to links with criminal activity, particularly in Sihanoukville. Newspapers reported stories of crimes committed by Chinese residents and business owners (mostly against fellow Chinese nationals), including murder, shootings, armed robbery, gang violence, kidnapping, trafficking in persons, extortion, counterfeiting, pornography, drunk driving, and drug possession. On August 21, authorities arrested more than 100 Chinese nationals for suspected drug trafficking.
Hundreds of ethnic Vietnamese fishing families living along the Tonle Sap River were forced to relocate their floating homes in June after government officials ordered them to vacate the area, despite some families reportedly having lived there for generations. The government did not recognize the citizenship of some ethnic Vietnamese, leaving them stateless. Some of the families attempted to move their floating homes into Vietnam via the Mekong River but their movements were prevented at the border.