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Land rights organisation in Lango limbo

Protesters demonstrate against land rights NGO Equitable Cambodia in Phnom Penh in September. The Ministry of Interior cited their complaints in suspending the organisation.
Protesters demonstrate against land rights NGO Equitable Cambodia in Phnom Penh in September. The Ministry of Interior cited their complaints in suspending the organisation. Photo supplied

Land rights organisation in Lango limbo

More than a month after the announcement of its ostensibly 30-day suspension, land rights organisation Equitable Cambodia remains stuck in limbo, with the Ministry of Interior saying the NGO must wait for the ministry’s approval to reopen.

Equitable Cambodia (EC) was suspended for 30 working days over alleged breaches of the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango) and their own bylaws on September 28. The suspension letter referenced an August 30 complaint against the organisation by land disputants it had formerly represented in Kampong Speu province, and who other villagers involved in the dispute believe have been paid to protest against the NGO.

Equitable Cambodia was also told to submit missing documents to comply with Lango provisions before its suspension elapsed. The suspension – taking into account public holidays – ended on Wednesday.

Chhim Kan, the director of the Interior Ministry’s Department of Associations and Political Parties, said Equitable Cambodia had submitted their reports, but they had not been reviewed yet.

“For the Equitable Cambodia case, I am checking their submitted reports and am checking with the law,” he said on Tuesday. “We are also checking with the authority. They need to wait for a letter from the ministry. They cannot start operating yet, they need to wait.”

Equitable Cambodia supports villagers locked in land disputes with companies and powerful tycoons, including the years-long dispute in Kampong Speu, which involves ruling Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat’s Phnom Penh Sugar company.

Equitable Cambodia declined to comment yesterday, citing the suspension.

But Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that the Ministry of Interior’s move did not conform to the law.

“According to LANGO Article 30, the Ministry of Interior can suspend a domestic NGO for a maximum period of 30 days for a violation of its own statutes. As such, any ban under Article 30 which exceeds 30 days would violate the LANGO itself,” she said in an email. “Given the LANGO already fails to comply with international human rights standards, a violation such as this would be especially egregious.”

Article 30 of Lango also allows the Ministry of Interior to remove an organisation from its register if documents aren’t submitted on time after a warning.

Sopheap said the continuing suspension of EC was “deeply troubling” and “representative of the Cambodian authorities’ overall crackdown on civil society”.

“The targeted use of the LANGO to sanction critical NGOs is already a grave concern for anyone interested in the state of human rights in Cambodia. The possibility of this highly repressive law being applied without proper respect for the limited safeguards contained in the law itself is doubly concerning,” she added.

Billy Tai, a human rights and legal consultant, said the ministry’s stance followed a familiar government tactic: “Cite the law that suits you and invent new rules where needed,” he said.

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