In late June, five human rights defenders who had been detained without trial for 14 months in Cambodia were suddenly and surprisingly released – on bail. Their trial for what many believe are trumped up political charges is still pending with no scheduled beginning, and the authorities have made it clear that any wrong move will land them right back in to the overcrowded cells of Phnom Penh’s correctional centers. Four of the Adhoc five, as they have become known, spoke to The Diplomat about how it feels to be finally released, but under close surveillance, in a political climate that has become increasingly repressive as the 2018 national elections loom, and the ruling party seems to fear defeat.
After a brief khmer greeting the mobile phones have to leave the room.
“It’s safer that way,” Nay Vanda says. The human rights defenders are being surveilled – the authorities make no effort to hide this, they say – and since the interview will be published, Nay Vanda and his three colleagues will still not be able to speak about anything directly related to their pending court case.
They work for Adhoc, one of the oldest human rights organizations in Cambodia, and along with Ny Chakrya, a former Adhoc employee, now deputy secretary general in Cambodia’s National Election Committee, they are charged with bribing a witness to a case against a leading politician of the opposition party.
Kem Sokha, the politician, was pardoned for his “crime” – an alleged extramarital affair – but the Adhoc five are still charged. Those charges effectively delineate their maneuvering space, only they do not know exactly how. How far can they push? How far dare they push?
“When they let us out on bail, we were told that we could be brought back in anytime they want; that’s what they said,” Nay Vanda explains.
Ny Sokha elaborates: “This makes it very complicated for us to carry out our work as human rights defenders – our job is to express our thoughts and criticize, and when we have criticisms it will usually affect the government and politicians. We try to push for positive changes. But if we criticize those governing the country, they might get upset and take us back to prison.”
The human rights defenders spent 427 days behind bars. 427 days with no trial and no clue as to when they would be released. 427 days in cells so overcrowded that the inmates would have to take turns sleeping.
Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, and Yi Soksan were held in Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1 for male inmates. The cells there are 4-by-5 meters and intended for 10-12 inmates, but usually housed 25-30 inmates.
“Some would be sleeping in hammocks, others on concrete benches and others on the floor. If a hammock fell down, it was dangerous for everyone,” Yi Soksan says.
Lim Mony was held in Correctional Center 2 for women inmates and children under 18. She spent the 427 days in a 5-by-10 meter cell with around 50 inmates.
“The biggest and strongest inmates would get the most space. The weaker ones would get less,” Lim Mony says.
The conditions obviously took a toll on their health. None of the Adhoc five are exactly youngsters, and none of them have ever been imprisoned before.
Yi Soksan was one of the very first Adhoc officers and has been with the organization since 1991, when it was set up with funding from UNCTAD, the UN transitional authority that was constructed to secure a democratic state after the Khmer Rouge period. Ny Sokha has been with Adhoc since 1992, and Lim Mony since 1993 when Adhoc set up their women’s group. Nay Vanda is the latecomer and has been with Adhoc since 2008.
They always knew they would be jailed one day, they say, and were in that sense prepared, but in reality, it was a shock. The first days, Yi Soksan vomited all the time, he recalls. It was the smell, the things he would witness, the things he would hear in that cell. They were spending time with people who had committed murder, armed robbery, and rape.
“That was the hardest thing,” Nay Vanda says, and everyone nods.
“It felt so unjust to be locked up with people who had killed and raped, when all we’ve ever done is to work for a better society,” Yi Soksan adds. ”Why did we deserve to be alongside with them? It made me want to cry.”
Lim Mony’s closest inmate neighbors were all killers, she says, and then laughs, no longer in disbelief, but still uncomprehending of the last 14 months. But killer or human rights defender, no one deserves the conditions of a Cambodian prison, they all agree.
“The name correctional center is wrong,” Yi Soksan says. “There is nothing correctional about it.”
Lim Mony continues: “What there is, is a lack of oxygen, a lack of food, a lack of space to sleep. There are diseases and insects that make you itch, and all this incites violence amongst people.”
“It affects our hearts to even speak of this,” Nay Vanda says. He is very concerned about the prospect that they might be taken back, and while speaking of the prison experiences he constantly moves about on his chair, smiling an uncertain smile.
The Adhoc five’s release on bail came as a surprise to everyone. Just one day prior to it, Licadho, another Cambodian human rights NGO, had send out a statement criticizing the restrictions on medical care for the five.
“None of us had expected to be released before the 2018 national elections were over,” Ny Sokha says. “Then on June 29 they came knocking: ‘Get out.’”
Officially, the release came because the investigation is completed and they can no longer obstruct justice. This means that according to procedure, the trial has to begin within four months.
“But that’s just procedure,” Ny Sokha says. ”This is Cambodia. Anything can happen; it might take forever.”
Their guess as to why they were released is because it was not useful for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to keep them locked up. Public opinion was loudly against their imprisonment, and the communal elections on June 4, 2017, were seen as a victory for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, which now has communal chiefs elected in almost every province.
Already the disputed 2013 national elections – which the opposition claims they would have won, had everything been free and fair – was a wake-up call for the ruling party. Prime Minister Hun Sen has more than once publicly threatened civil war should the CPP lose at the polls. Criticism of the ruling party has increasingly been framed as aligning with the opposition, and a series of new laws on trade union activity, on political parties, and on NGOs have been adopted. The latter, usually referred to as LANGO, oblige NGOs to register with the Ministry of Interior and to stay “neutral,” whatever that means.
The CPP might have responded to local and international pressure to let the human rights defenders go. The question on everyone’s mind then is what their trial will be like, and not least when it will be. The current situation seems quite perfect for CPP, if the case against the Adhoc five was always a “political ransom,” as Ny Sokha phrases it. While it seemed that the CPP gained nothing and the opposition everything from their detention without trial, their current freedom (in name only) might be another story.
“We cannot stop the work we are doing, we cannot,” Nay Vanda says, “but we must speak in a soft tone, not in a hard tone like before.” Again, he smiles his uncertain smile.
“We can operate, but we have to be very careful,” Ny Sokha agrees. “On the other hand, though, bringing us back in will affect the government’s popularity negatively, and they know this.”
It is a volatile game, where everyone watches each other’s moves. What it will ultimately mean for the Adhoc five is still a mystery.
Nina Trige Andersen is a journalist and historian specializing in East and Southeast Asia.