By Ben Woods
December 26, 2012 The Cambodia Daily
Rights group Adhoc yesterday stressed that it was the organization’s policy to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to anyone seeking their help—regardless of that person’s status in the eyes of the authorities.
Adhoc’s comment follows the court’s questioning of Chan Soveth, a prominent investigator at the organization, who faces criminal prosecution for aiding a man who was suspected of involvement in a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province in May.
During questioning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday, Mr. Soveth said that in May, he had unknowingly helped Ma Chhang—a suspected leader of the alleged secessionist movement—by giving him money for food, accommodation and transportation. At the time, Mr. Chhang had introduced himself to Mr. Soveth as Tin Chhang, a victim of forced eviction, and appeared to be starving, according to Adhoc.
One of Mr. Soveth’s three defense lawyers, Long Lunn, later told reporters that his client would not have helped Ma Chhang had he known the man was being sought by government authorities.
“Adhoc will always provide humanitarian assistance [in the form of food and emergency accommodation] to persons who prima facie seem to be victims of human rights violations,” Nicolas Agostini, Adhoc’s technical assistant for land and natural resources issues, said in an email.
“We will always provide food to someone who is starving, whatever the person’s criminal status,” he said.
“However, Adhoc as a local organization, must comply with the law, and cannot help persons for whom an arrest warrant has been issued to evade arrest,” Mr. Agostini continued. Adhoc could provide legal assistance to such people, assuming they are victims of human rights violations, Mr. Agostini added.
Monday’s comments by Mr. Soveth’s lawyer called into question the role of human rights workers in providing assistance to those in need, particularly those who might be considered victims of state persecution.
Mr. Agostini said that Mr. Lunn’s comments were meant simply to clarify that Mr. Soveth would not help anyone to evade arrest.
Mr. Soveth was not detained following his court appearance Monday, but the criminal charges against him still stand and he has been ordered to remain available for further questioning.
Popular radio station owner Mam Sonando was jailed in October for 20 years for allegedly offering encouragement to the villagers in Kratie whom the government labeled “secessionists.”
While the villagers in Kratie committed no violence and made no statements regarding their so-called rural rebellion, authorities shot and killed a 14-year-old girl, Heng Chantha, during a massive operation against the farmers who were involved in a long-running dispute with a private land concession company.
Heng Chantha’s death has not been investigated by government authorities, who branded her killing an “accident.”