EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 
Kea Sokun, a 23-year-old rap artist from Cambodia, was arrested in September 2020 in response to two songs he posted on his YouTube page. Sokun was accused of inciting criminal activity under an overly broad interpretation of Article 495 of Cambodia’s criminal code. While there was no evidence that Sokun’s songs actually led to any criminal or violent activity, he was held in pretrial detention for nearly four months.
After being detained for an extended period during delays in the prosecution’s case, Sokun’s trial lasted for one hour wherein the prosecution presented the YouTube videos and a single statement from a police officer concluding that Sokun’s use of the phrases “rising up” and “standing up” amounted to incitement to violence. Sokun was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and the Court’s written judgement did not address any of the issues raised by Sokun’s defense counsel relating to the right to expression and the lack of proof that Sokun’s music incited any form of violence or criminal activity. Several months after the Court’s decision, Sokun still has not been able to seek an appeal.
Kea Sokun’s prosecution is not an isolated case; it is part of a larger trend. The Cambodian government has increasingly put in place repressive measures to stifle dissidents and opposing, critical voices. In 2020 alone, nearly 60 individuals have been convicted for what many allege are politically motivated charges to punish the defendants for their membership in Cambodia’s opposition political party. Meanwhile, in response to the global pandemic, the Cambodian government has declared a state of emergency that severely curtailed the right to freedom of expression or opinion, causing further erosion of civic space in Cambodia.
In accordance with its international and domestic legal obligations, the Cambodian government must protect Sokun’s right to appeal and release him from jail while the appeal process proceeds. The government must re-examine its broad over-use of Article 495 incitement charges and the COVID-19 state of emergency law that are being used to silence human rights activists, young musicians and artists, and members of the political opposition.
Between August and September 2020, the Cambodian authorities launched a wave of arrests of young human rights activists and artists.  Mr. Kea Sokun, 22, is a rap artist arrested and charged with “incitement" on September 4, 2020.  In late December, the Siem Reap provincial court convicted him of incitement to commit a felony under Article 495 of the Cambodian Criminal code. While Sokun’s case raises issues concerning his rights to fair trial and freedom of expression, it is not an aberration in Cambodia.  It is one of many in a recent crackdown on young activists by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). 
In recent years, the Cambodian government has intensified its curtailment of rights and civic freedoms and rapidly escalated its attempts to close civic space. Frivolous criminal charges are used to stifle dissidents and critical voices. Although Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary body, one ruling party has dominated the political system for decades.
The CPP won all 125 National Assembly seats in the July 2018 national election. After cracking down on civil society for months and disbanding the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), this election victory cemented Cambodia’s status as a de facto single-party state. 
In November 2020, the former U. N. Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia issued a statement, expressing grave concern over the mass trial of individuals associated with the CNRP.  These issues were raised by eight U.S. Members of Congress on November 16, 2020, in a statement urging the U.S. Secretary of State “to address the alarming deterioration in human rights protection and democratic rule in Cambodia.”  The statement included a section briefly outlining five cases that exemplify the worsening conditions in Cambodia. Ultimately, the Congressmembers urged the U.S. government to respond alongside its allies to “send a strong message to the Cambodian Prime Minister that his crackdown on opposition and freedom of speech is unacceptable.” 
In January 2021, the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen celebrated 36 years in power.  At the time of this writing, his party has allegedly wielded their political power to quell dissent, violating fundamental freedoms guaranteed by Cambodia’s Constitution and protected under international human rights law.  The international community have repeatedly expressed concern over torture, surveillance, the absence of judicial independence, censorship, among other issues. However, the government has failed to take any meaningful steps to address these violations. 
LEGAL AND POLITICAL CONTEXT
A. Freedom of Opinion and Expression
Despite the Cambodian Constitution guarantees the protection of individuals’ rights to the freedom of opinion and expression under Article 41, the government has a record of systematically restricting people’s right to dissent. The right to the freedom of opinion and expression is asserted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and codified in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This proclamation is specifically addressed in Article 19 of the ICCPR.  Since 1992, Cambodia has been a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights along with several other human rights conventions.
This is particularly significant because the 1991 Paris Accords set out a comprehensive framework for political settlement, which was agreed to by all parties in Cambodia.  The Accords specifically require that Cambodia abide by its international obligations to protect the human rights of its people.  Yet, as noted by Human Rights Watch, “[t]he international effort set in motion by the 1991 Paris Agreements has essentially failed”  due to the continued denial of basic human rights, especially the freedom of opinion and expression by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his party.
The right to freedom of opinion and expression remains a central issue that impacts other rights in Cambodia including the freedom of assembly and association, and the right to participate in public affairs, and the right to vote.  The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia (OHCHR Cambodia) clarifies that there is an inextricable link between the freedom of opinion and expression and the fulfillment of other fundamental freedoms. 
Leading up to the 2018 election, the party shuttered news publications and detained an unprecedented number of land rights activists, environmental activists, garment workers, trade unionists,  and members of the CNRP.  With the most vocal dissidents silenced and prior to the election, the CPP further dissolved the CNRP by a Supreme Court’s decision. 
Actions like these led to Cambodia’s designation as “not free” in Freedom House’s 2020 report.  Like many international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), Freedom House expresses its concern over the lack of free and fair elections, abuse of the judicial system, and suppression of opinion and expression.  Similarly, CIVICUS monitor rated the state of civic space as repressed. 
B. Political Environment
According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the Cambodian government intensified its repressive measures in the aftermath of the 2013 National Assembly election.  Major demonstrations erupted across the country, protesting reliable claims that the CPP influenced the National Election Committee (NEC).  At the same time, the CNRP rejected the election results and temporarily boycotted the National Assembly.  In response, the CPP took measures to repress the public’s discontent, not only targeting the CNRP and their supporters, but also other dissidents.  They imposed bans on peaceful protests  and escalated use of force, arbitrary detention, politically motivated prosecutions, suppression of labor protests, and control over the judiciary. 
After 2014, these practices became common, but it was not until 2017 that the human rights situation has deteriorated.  In the years since the election, the CPP has continued repressing speech that supports the CNRP. The reach of CPP censoring power has expanded to include people that have no affiliation with the CNRP, including Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, whose broadcasting licenses were suspended in August 2018.  The past several years have resulted in a culture of fear and self-censorship.  This situation has exacerbated with the declared state of emergency in response to the global pandemic.
C. Suppression of Freedom of Opinion and Expression in Cambodia
The Cambodian Constitution guarantees its citizens “freedom of expression of their ideas, freedom of information, freedom of publication, and freedom of assembly.”  Still, growing reports of censorship put the CPP’s adherence to its constitutional obligations into question. 
The international community has repeatedly expressed its concern over the restrictions of freedom of opinion and expression in Cambodia.  Mary Lawlor, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, issued a statement calling for an “immediate end to the systematic detention and criminalization of human rights defenders, as well as excessive use of force against them.”  Special Rapporteur Lawlor’s call was endorsed by Rhona Smith, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia; and other mandates of the U.N. Human Rights Council. 
The Special Rapporteur reiterates the point made by many other international observers, stating: