Cambodia’s criminal justice system appears to have been methodically suppressing opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government in the lead-up to important elections, with critics of his regime routinely being jailed without evidence or fair trial, Amnesty International says in a report released today.
Hun Sen’s government “seems to have embarked on a systematic campaign” to smother criticism by concocting “unfounded and fabricated” criminal cases against those who dare speak out, Amnesty says, with arrests increasing as elections approach.
The report, titled Courts of Injustice: Suppressing Activism Through the Criminal Justice System in Cambodia, notes that at least 27 prominent opposition officials and “human rights defenders” have been imprisoned since the 2013 national election – but says more than 200 others have faced spurious legal cases.
The efforts have not only silenced those put behind bars, it says, but has led to “a palpable decrease in the willingness of civil society to speak out against human rights violations” – especially given the frequency of criminal cases filed and then left dormant.
“The prosecution and judiciary maintain control over individuals by keeping cases open against them without necessarily taking steps to investigate or prosecute,” Amnesty says, explaining that many live for years with court cases hanging over their heads.
“Prosecutors often summon suspects for questioning as part of their preliminary investigations but take no further action either to proceed with, or to close the case, leaving the individual questioned in a state of uncertainty.”
As an example, the report notes that during high-profile and tense national wage negotiations in September 2014, five popular leaders of unions were suddenly charged with “intentional violence” over a nationwide strike that took place the year before.
The dormant cases remain open to this day, though one of the officials, Rong Chhun, was in May 2016 informed by the courts that his case was ready to move to trial – after the opposition had appointed him as one of nine National Election Committee members.
Yet Amnesty says the use of such legal harassment has run the gamut of independent Cambodian society, and the report draws on examples ranging from the five current and former Adhoc rights workers jailed for “bribing” an opposition leader’s purported mistress to deny an extra-marital affair to imprisoned community leaders like Tep Vanny.
Vanny, one of the most outspoken critics of the government, was most recently jailed in August 2016 for six days on a conviction for “incitement” after she led a ceremony cursing mannequins representing corrupt officials during protests to free the Adhoc five.
She was then given a further six months for an “insult” case from 2011. Three months ago, she was given a further two and a half years for “intentional violence” over a peaceful protest that took place in front of Hun Sen’s house in 2013 and was violently dispersed by authorities.
The Amnesty report cites the trial over those four-year-old charges, which took place on February 6, as an example of the absence of due process.
“Failing to bring order to proceedings, the presiding judge adjourned the hearing saying that he was feeling unwell,” it says.
“Vanny was convicted when the proceedings – in which no credible inculpatory evidence was presented – resumed on February 23.”
The report also recommends that the CPP government ceases suppressing dissent using “unsubstantiated criminal charges” against its critics, “immediately drop all existing cases” against those improperly charged and ensure the judiciary’s independence.
Presently, the justice system is helmed by CPP officials, including the Supreme Court Chief Justice Dith Munthy. Munthy also sits on the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which appoints judges – as well as the CPP’s elite 13-member standing committee.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday the Amnesty International report was misguided in calling for an end to the imprisonment of government critics and opposition figures, arguing that such a method was better than alternatives.
“If they don’t want us to use that, what do they want us to use – guns?” Siphan said, not backing from the statement when pressed. Yet he insisted that the criminal justice sys-tem remained independent of the CPP.
“We follow due process and the law,” he said. “These reports belong to the opposition people. They are working with the opposition party against the government to come up with false reports to confuse people.”
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that he too was not concerned by Amnesty International’s report, because international organisations habitually accuse the government of having a political purpose whenever any opposition member is jailed.
“When they see the arrests or implementation of sentences against the opposition, they say it is from political pressure, but this conclusion is not scientific – it is not the case that the implementation of laws against the opposition is always political,” Malin said, attributing rises in arrests to improved enforcement.
“The opposition can no longer do like they did before and they cannot incite people like before because they now have the experience that when they do that they will be arrested,” he said.
“After thoroughly implementing the law against many opposition activists, we have seen that the opposition does not dare break the law.”
Yet the extent to which opposition to the government has been subdued by the slew of arrests since the 2013 national election should soon become clear.
Commune elections are due nationwide on Sunday and will provide the first indication of support for the two parties and their approaches since 2013, noted John Ciorciari, a Cambodia scholar at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R Ford School of Public Policy.
“This type of ‘lawfare’ is nothing new in Cambodia but has become more important for the CPP over time. It is a more sophisticated way to subdue dissent than relying on force alone,” Ciorciari said.
“The government may have a prohibitive edge in the courthouse, but the real battle is in the courtroom of public opinion,” he said. “The opposition will of course welcome Amnesty’s report on the eve of elections, when voters will have their chance to impose those costs.”
Additional reporting by Mech Dara