Recent decisions by Cambodian courts have underscored the problem of state control of the country’s judiciary, marked by an entrenched system of political interference in cases threatening the power of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Cambodian sources say.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday denied bail to seven environmental activists whose period of pretrial detention at Prey Sar Prison has already exceeded the limit allowed by law, their lawyer Sam Chamroeun told RFA.
Charged with “incitement to create social chaos” for their campaigns to protect Cambodia’s natural resources and environment, the activists have already been held in custody for nine months, three months over the mandated maximum, Sam Chamroeun said.
“We presented strong legal reasons for the court to release them on bail,” the lawyer said, noting that the judge hearing their request had allowed them each to make statements but had asked no questions himself.
The seven activists, members of the Khmer Thavrak youth group and the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, are now suffering ill health in custody, Sam Chamroeun said.
Thach Thida, mother of activist Chhoeun Daravy, expressed disappointment with the court’s decision, insisting on her daughter’s innocence of the charges made against her, and demanding that she and the other activists be freed.
“According to the law, they should have been released four to six months ago. I am so disappointed,” she said.
Heng Kimhong, Head of the Research and Advocacy Program of the Cambodian Youth Network, also called on the court to release the seven activists from detention, telling RFA he had been present at their hearing.
“They have already been detained for nine months, and yet the court has not brought them to trial, claiming concerns over COVID-19. If the court continues to detain them, this will be a violation of their right to freedom,” he said.
Attempts to reach Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Y Rin were unsuccessful Friday.
‘Treason’ case delayed
Also on Friday, Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA that former opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha, now under house arrest while awaiting trial on charges of “treason,” will not be allowed to take part in elections scheduled for 2022 and 2023.
“The court has not yet finished with his case, so he will not be present for the upcoming elections,” Sok Ey San said while refusing to comment on the long delay in bringing Kem Sokha to trial and saying the court’s decision in the case had been made free from political influence.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 and barred its members from taking part in political activities, two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest for his role in an alleged plot to topple Hun Sen’s government.
The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 parliamentary seats in the country’s 2018 general election.
Kem Sokha was put on trial in January 2020, but the hearings were suspended two months later on the pretext of containing the spread of COVI-19. Hun Sen has hinted that the trial may not resume for years, and may not conclude until 2024, long after the next election cycle.
Speaking to RFA, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Pheng Heng said that the final outcome of Khem Sokha’s case will depend on politics, and that his absence from coming elections will damage Cambodia’s reputation on the world stage.
“The national and international community want to see more space for democracy in Cambodia so that potential opposition parties can freely compete in elections,” he said. “Continuing to ignore Kem Sokha will only affect Cambodia’s reputation.”
Political analyst Em Sovanara agreed that Kem Sokha’s case will be decided by the government rather than the courts, adding that the CPP wants to continue to delay his trial so that the ruling party will win again in 2022 and 2023 in the absence of viable competitors.
“The [CNRP’s] bargaining power is weak now. It does not have the power to push the ruling party to the table for talks, but the dissolved party can demand justice to speed up the court case and urge the international community to monitor the proceedings,” he said.
Double standards of justice
Chak Sopheap, Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), told RFA it is imperative for Cambodia’s court system to provide equal justice for all if the country hopes to bring an end to the culture of impunity.
Her comments came after Hun Sen appeared to intervene in the case of Mean Pich Rita, a 20-year-old TV presenter and former Miss Grand Cambodia, who had been arrested days earlier on a charge of “aggravated theft” for allegedly stealing the mobile phone of an influential business tycoon.
After Hun Sen announced that he would form a legal team to assist in her defense, Mean Pich Rita was quickly released on bail by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, prompting complaints that Cambodia’s judiciary maintains a double standard of justice.
“Previously, we only saw communities facing land issues, activists, and those who were unjustly accused demanding justice,” Chak Sopheap said. “And many wealthy people, or people not impacted by these problems, were always criticizing human rights and environmental activists for complaining and making demands.”
“But when problems happen to them, they also cry out for justice,” she said.
Political control, corruption
Cambodia’s constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the U.S. State Department noted in an annual report released this year on human rights practices around the world in 2020.
“But the government did not respect judicial independence, exerting extensive control over the courts,” and court decisions were often subject to political influence, the State Department said, adding that judicial officials often simultaneously held positions in the ruling party.
“Corruption among judges, prosecutors, and court officials was widespread,” the State Department added.
In an Oct. 18, 2017 report, the International Commission of Jurists noted that Cambodia had successfully “weaponized” the law and was relying on judges and prosecutors to “silence dissent and dismantle democracy.”
“The ‘rule of law’ is not only about passing and implementing laws,” said KInglsey Abbottt, Senior International Legal Adviser at ICJ’s regional office in Bangok.
Rather, those laws should be “drafted and applied in accordance with international human rights law and without discrimination, based on political or other opinion,” Abbott added.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun and Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Richard Finney and Joshua Lipes.