In January, the government engaged in a violent crackdown on growing labour and opposition protests in and around Phnom Penh, resulting in the death of five people. Military forces and police also beat up protesters, and arrested 23 of them over the course of two days. Those arrested, including four prominent human rights defenders, are now known as “the 23”. The violence and arbitrary nature of their arrests, their five-month detention and the recent court verdicts finding them guilty illustrate the intolerance of the government towards anyone threatening its economic interests or its legitimacy.
Last Friday, judges announced the 23 had all been found guilty of acts of violence and related charges, and sentenced them to between one and four and a half years’ imprisonment. However, all sentences were suspended and the 23 were released the same day, in part due to growing pressure from international brands, international unions and international and local civil society. Brands such as H&M, Gap and Levi Strauss are important buyers for Cambodian factories and represent crucial economic interests, with the garment industry’s exports exceeding $4 billion in the first nine months of 2013 alone.
While it was heart-warming to see the mothers, fathers, wives and friends of the 23 cry with relief after learning that their loved ones would be set free and reunited with their families, their release should not overshadow the core issue that these verdicts represent and that is symptomatic of Cambodia’s judiciary: a lack of independence used by the government as a tool to suppress opposition voices.
The conviction comes after an obviously biased trial. Violations of the 23’s right to a fair trial were seen at every stage of the process, from the impunity with which security forces killed and injured protesters in January to the very courtroom in which a judge took on the role of prosecutor. During the five days of trials, no incriminatory evidence was presented and the defendants’ rights to a fair trial were repeatedly violated. Judges turned into prosecutors, blatantly assuming the guilt of defendants, qualifying protesters as “gangsters”, preventing defence lawyers from presenting evidence and censoring defendants’ testimonies. In light of the conduct of the hearing, there was no doubt regarding the political nature of the case: the 23 were in jail to set an example and to dissuade workers from protesting against an industry from which government officials and members of the elite greatly benefit.
The only thing the 23 could be found guilty of is having exercised their freedom of assembly, guaranteed by the constitution. Today they are free, but they remain guilty in the eyes of the court. The verdict illustrates that despite a lack of evidence, the judiciary could not openly dismiss the arrests made by security forces and instead handed down suspended sentences. The suspended sentences also now represent a constant threat hanging over their heads, while the five months they spent in prison stand as a reminder to anyone who protests of the risks they are taking. The happiness of seeing them free should not divert Cambodians or the international community from the reality of this verdict.
It is no secret that the judiciary in Cambodia is not independent and is partial to the interests of the elite and the government. It is not a tool for justice but rather a tool to suppress dissident voices. The government’s control of the judiciary will be further reinforced, as only a few weeks ahead of the verdict, the National Assembly adopted three laws “reforming” the judiciary.
The laws, which had been gathering dust for years, were rushed through a one-party assembly and adopted after only two days, despite repeated calls for consultation by the UN and civil society. Leaked drafts of the laws revealed that they will not reform the judiciary in a manner that would strengthen its independence as we had all hoped. Instead, they will reinforce the influence of the executive branch over the judicial and grant direct powers to the Ministry of Justice over the judiciary to advance and promote judges and prosecutors, control expenses and discipline judges.
If the judiciary were truly independent, the security forces responsible for beating up and arbitrarily arresting the 23 would be investigated as well. However, while the 23 stood trial and were convicted, not one military or police officer has been investigated or even simply questioned about the violence in January. The 23 are now free, but justice remains prisoner to the political manipulations and intimidations of the ruling party.
Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.