Cambodian Human Rights Defender Under Threat
Moeun Tola, the Director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), ILRF’s longtime partner in Cambodia, is facing falsified and politically motivated allegations in an attempt to undermine the work of his grassroots organization and of the country’s human rights and labor movement more broadly. On 18 January 2018, the Phnom Penh Court deputy prosecutor issued a recommendation that Tola be charged with Breach of Trust and detained pending trial. If convicted, he and two other accused activists face imprisonment for a period of six months to three years and a fine of up to six million riel.
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Tola and CENTRAL are strong advocates for Cambodian workers, including those who sew clothing for major U.S. and European brands. CENTRAL provides legal aid to workers, conducts training on fundamental rights and leadership skills, and advocates for wage increases for workers. CENTRAL has also been at the forefront of advocating for Cambodian migrant workers’ rights in Thailand. During a recent trip to Phnom Penh, we witnessed CENTRAL’s important work with women worker leaders, and their development of grassroots strategies to engage brands in improving the conditions of the over 700,000 workers in Cambodia’s garment factories, most of whom are women.
The charges issued against Tola concern an unsubstantiated claim that he and two other leading civil society activists, Pa Nguon Teang, an advocate for press freedom, and But Buntenh, an activist monk, misappropriated funds raised for the funeral of Kem Ley, a well-known government critic who was assassinated in 2016. Human Rights Watch has termed the charges “politically motivated legal harassment” and an example of the government targeting NGO activists. Moreover, Kem Ley’s own family has stated that there is no basis for the allegations, as Tola and the other two accused leaders never handled any of the funeral funds. Further, the complainant politician, Pich Sros, neither took part in the funeral nor has any connections to Kem Ley’s family.
These accusations are part of the alarming escalation of repression against civil society organizations, unions, human rights defenders, opposition political parties and media outlets in the lead-up to this year’s national elections. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia noted in September that “the deterioration of the democratic space and freedom of expression in Cambodia is a primary concern, with many NGOs and human rights defenders subject to threats, harassment, arrest, and/or extensive pre-trial detention.” Currently, labor rights, including the right to freedom of association, are being threatened, through restrictions on the right to organize under the current trade union law and other legislative proposals.
ILRF strongly condemns these accusations and actions against Tola. Please support Tola and CENTRAL’s work with Cambodian workers by taking action now!