During yesterday’s 18th annual memorial of the 1997 grenade attack on an opposition rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia National Rescue Party acting president Kem Sokha called for the amendment of three controversial judicial laws passed last year that critics claim have further compromised the independence of the Kingdom’s courts.
Sokha’s comments on the judiciary came as he was summonsed to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning on April 8 in connection with an unspecified case, his lawyer confirmed. The summons arrived just weeks after Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the courts to take action against the firebrand deputy CNRP leader for supposedly having admitted that he tried to topple the government following the 2013 election.
Yesterday’s ceremony commemorated the March 30, 1997, attack in which 16 people were killed and hundreds wounded after three grenades tore through a demonstration calling for improved labour rights and a living wage for garment workers.
Eighteen years later, no arrests have been made in connection to the fatal attack, which many believe was orchestrated by supporters of then co-prime minister Hun Sen, who seized power after defeating forces loyal to Prince Norodom Ranariddh during factional fighting in the capital’s streets months later.
Speaking in front of hundreds of memorial attendees, Sokha said the CNRP will continue to seek justice for the grenade attack victims by restarting dialogues with the ruling CPP to amend the three judicial laws enacted in June and reform the court system.
“It is necessary that the CNRP must demand an amendment of these three laws . . . because right now, we currently cannot urge the courts to be independent,” he said. “So we will prepare the proposal to amend [the laws] and discuss it with the ruling party.”
The Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the Courts, the Law on the Role of Judges and Prosecutors, and the Law on the Organisation and Functioning of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy were passed by the CPP while the opposition was boycotting the National Assembly.
Originally conceived to set better checks and balances in the judiciary, critics say that the long-awaited laws have instead tightened government control over the courts.
“A lot of lawyers are concerned that the members of the Supreme Council [of Magistracy] and courts are not independent enough, because the membership is mostly from the ruling party and the executive branch, and this impacts judicial independence,” human rights lawyer Sok Sam Oeun said yesterday. “There has to be a separation of power.”
The laws put the Justice Ministry in charge of several key administrative functions, including supervising court prosecutors.
“The problem with this is if the future government is not led by the current ruling party and the prosecutors predominantly have CPP ties, then conflicts might arise,” Sam Oeun added.
But CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said yesterday that there is no reason to amend the current laws and that amending them would be near impossible.
“[These laws] that have been in effect already cannot be amended,” Eysan said, adding the CNRP is still welcome to put forward proposals to the National Assembly.
According to Sokha, his party plans to hand over a reform proposal after the new National Election Committee is set up and amended election law enacted.
“We intend to look into reforms of other key national institutions starting with the judiciary, as is written [in] one of the provisions on the July 22 political agreement,” CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said.
Yesterday, Sokha was also summonsed by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning on April 8, officials confirmed.
The reason for the summons, however, is unclear.
“I have received the [summons] from the cabinet inviting him to be questioned, but I don’t know for which case, because the [summons] did not confirm that, so the person concerned cannot know [his case],” said Sokha’s lawyer Meng Sotheary.
Sotheary added that she was unsure if her client will choose to appear in court.
The summons comes after Prime Minister Hun Sen asked the court two weeks ago to take legal action against Sokha, accusing him of having admitted that he tried to overthrow the current government after a speech that the CNRP lawmaker delivered to supporters in Long Beach, California.
Sokha denied the allegations, saying that his party had always tried to effect non-violent change, that he had not used the word “topple”, and that Hun Sen had misinterpreted him.
Deputy prosecutor Ly Sophana, who sent the summons, could not be reached.