When seven Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers-elect and a party activist were released on bail from Prey Sar prison on Tuesday, it was to the cheers of supporters and the general approval of civil society.
But even as observers yesterday welcomed the detainees’ release – which came hot on the heels of a political deal between the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – some were quick to note that the entire episode was yet another example of Cambodian courts’ susceptibility to political influence.
According to Duch Piseth, head of the trial monitoring project at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the court betrayed its lack of independence both coming and going.
“The arrest of the CNRP members was not [justified], because they did nothing wrong. . . . If we look at the law on demonstrations, the authorities must arrest those who commit violence directly, not those who lead the protest,” Piseth said, maintaining that the charges against the politicians were strictly meant to up the pressure on opposition negotiators.
“And just a few hours after the meeting between the supreme leaders of both parties, those CNRP members who had been arrested were released on bail,” he added. “So this is a clear example that the judiciary in Cambodia is not independent.”
In fact, Mu Sochua, one of the CNRP’s newly released lawmakers, agreed, saying that her experience had showed her “how rotten to the core” the court system is. While she “should not have spent one second in jail”, she continued, her improbably timely release was just as suspect.
“How can we be in and out in seven days? These were serious charges, and at the minute of the arrests they were not legal,” she said. “When the talks happened, within three hours, we were out. What kind of a system is this? It has to be free, fair and independent for all, not just for exceptional cases.”
According to Piseth, though the charges against the eight still technically stand, they were likely to be dropped the minute that the released lawmakers become covered by parliamentary immunity.
However, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Surya Subedi expressed his own concerns that the charges could be dangled over lawmakers’ heads and revived whenever politically expedient, as well as that “[i]nstead of being a check, the judiciary appears to be acting as a tool of the executive”.
While it may have raised some eyebrows that the CNRP – a party that has long advocated judicial independence – was the seeming beneficiary of political influence on the courts this time, party president Sam Rainsy said yesterday that he had not specifically sought his party members’ release in negotiations with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“We all know that the judiciary in this country is not independent, but in our negotiations, even though we had in mind our colleagues who were detained, we still pushed for our demands – our basic demands – to be met,” he said, allowing that the CPP may have inferred that their release was an implicit part of the agreement.
However, Ministry of Justice Secretary of State and CPP working group member Keut Rith yesterday maintained that the lawmakers’ release had nothing to do with undue pressure from the executive.
“The [lawmakers’] defence teams, as I understand, had requested bail for their client on July 21, and the court’s decision was made following the request and based on the procedure of the law,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA, DAVID BOYLE AND KEVIN PONNIAH