On an afternoon in early April last year, two CPP-appointed officials from the Ministry of Justice met with representatives of the Cambodia National Rescue Party to plan the release on bail of five jailed opposition members and other imprisoned activists.
They were on orders from the very top.
The officials were alone in the restaurant at Phnom Penh’s Landscape Hotel as the CNRP representatives arrived, according to multiple sources interviewed for this article.
The newcomers sat down, introductions were made and pleasantries were exchanged. Coffee was on the table. Someone ordered a plate of vegetables.
Ministry Secretary of State Koeut Rith spoke first, recalled one attendee.
“We talked about the procedure, about how the judge can release the CNRP activists before Khmer New Year,” another person at the meeting told the Post.
“I knew clearly [the prisoners] would be released [on bail].”
The bail application, the sixth for some in the group, was submitted an hour or so after the Landscape Hotel meeting, as per Rith’s instructions.
It was granted three days later.
The case, said one Cambodian lawyer, who requested anonymity to speak critically of the system, highlighted the inescapable truth of the Kingdom’s judiciary: “The law follows politics.”
Those five activists, plus six more not in custody at the time, were eventually convicted of “insurrection” in relation to a 2014 anti-government rally at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park that turned violent and each were sentenced to between seven and 20 years jail.
Today, they will make another bid for freedom as they contest the conviction at the Appeal Court. However, under very different political conditions, it’s unlikely their bid will be successful this time around.
Months of negotiations
The April deal – which also included bail for three detained monks and royal pardons for 10 land activists; most from the Boeung Kak lake community – was conceived amid a high-point in the so-called culture of dialogue.
Hours before the CNRP representatives met with Ministry of Justice officials, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and CNRP were lauding a new age in Cambodian politics.
That morning, lawmakers from both sides had voted unanimously to support candidates for the new bipartisan National Election Committee.
The new NEC was the culmination of months of negotiations following the end of the CNRP’s almost year-long parliamentary boycott as part of the July 22, 2014, political deal, which kicked-started the parties’ détente.
But a shadow had always hung over the talks.
Days before the CNRP agreed to take their seats in July 2014, opposition protesters attempting to retake a barricaded Freedom Park turned on notoriously violent Daun Penh security guards, seriously injuring dozens. Seven opposition lawmakers were taken into custody and charged with insurrection, only to be released, though not acquitted, after the deal’s signing.
As negotiations progressed, CNRP activists involved in the rally began to be rounded up by authorities.
By April, 11 had been charged and five detained for the “insurrection”.
“We knew all along the arrests were used as a bargaining chip to pressure the CNRP into some sort of agreement,” political commentator Ou Virak told the Post at the time the CNRP prisoners were first bailed.
“The CPP got what they want and they no longer need the prisoners as part of that deal . . . all this goes to show how far we are getting from rule of law and judicial independence.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy was at the Riverside’s K-West restaurant eating a medium-rare ribeye steak when he missed Hun Sen’s call.
On the sidelines of the NEC vote earlier that day, Rainsy had pushed the premier for the prisoners’ release.
Hun Sen wanted his long-time rival to appear with him in Siem Reap for Khmer New Year, a public display of cooperation to cement their new détente.
Unable to reach Rainsy, Hun Sen rang Rainsy’s wife, lawmaker Tioulong Saumura. She answered and passed the phone over. And now he had a compromise, Rainsy said.
“Hun Sen told me on the phone during lunchtime that his wife and him could understand my embarrassment to come when CNRP supporters would see me in Siem Reap in a joyful Khmer New Year celebration ceremony in the company of the Prime Minister,” Rainsy said, via email.
“He therefore would help me avoid such embarrassment by finding a legal way to release all CNRP supporters and all those detainees who had been arrested in a tense political situation.”
Less than two weeks after the CNRP and land activists were released – the latter’s freedom dubbed a “Khmer New Year gift”, according to one CPP official at the time – experts from the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute arrived in Phnom Penh to examine the judiciary.
In a damning report published five months later, they described a system where “corruption influence – political and financial – appears to be exerted at will over all judicial activities”.
They were troubled by reports judges were “instructed” by the government to make certain rulings and concerned the CNRP were “frequently” making deals that encouraged the executive to influence the judiciary.
“Such practices exacerbate existing problems with executive influence in the judiciary and must stop,” they wrote.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin yesterday declined to comment on the April deal. Rith declined to be interviewed for this piece on several occasions.
‘Control your subordinates’
As 2015 continued, the culture of dialogue deteriorated.
A campaign by the CNRP to highlight the government’s complicity in territorial encroachments by Vietnam had irked the premier.
On July 17, he sent Rainsy a text.
“If you can’t control your followers and subordinates . . . I can’t control the tribunal. You will see what would happen,” the premier’s message read, according to Rainsy.
Less than a week later, the 11 CNRP activists were back in court and swiftly sentenced, despite a boycott by their lawyers.
In an interview, presiding judge Lim Makaron, also a deputy chief of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, denied he was under any instructions.
“The decision I made was based on the law,” Makaron said.
In August, three more CNRP activists were seized over the Freedom Park protests, then came the arrest of Sam Rainsy Party Senator Hong Sok Hour, snatched by armed police over a border-related Facebook post dubbed “treasonous” by the premier.
Then tensions boiled over. In late October, pro-CPP supporters beat two opposition lawmakers outside parliament and the ruling party ousted Kem Sokha as parliament’s vice president.
By mid November, Rainsy had fled, for a third time, into self-imposed exile after being hit with an arrest warrant, which revived a two-year prison term delivered in 2011 for incitement and defaming Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
He has since been sued twice more by government officials for defamation and implicated in Sok Hour’s case. He potentially faces 19 years in prison upon return.
The initial conviction was believed expunged by a 2013 royal pardon.
However, a four-page legal reasoning bearing the name of Secretary of State Koeut Rith, and approved by Hun Sen, disputed this.
“The Phnom Penh Municipal court has a duty to comply with the law in issuing an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy in order to implement the court’s final decision,” it reads.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling for the 11 CNRP members to be released today.
Offering a lengthy analysis of the merits of the case, HRW concluded there was “no legal or factual basis” for the “trumped up charges, convictions and long sentences”.
They noted significant evidence had been ignored, including audio and video clips supporting allegations that para-police at the scene initiated the violence.
Three of the group – Meach Sovannara, Oeur Narith and Khin Chhumroeun – face 20 years in prison for “leading” an insurrection. The rest, including tuk-tuk driver Ouch Pich Samnang, were handed seven years for participating.
Yesterday, Samnang’s son Sim Sonil said his father’s imprisonment had left him with little trust in any political party.
“When the politics get hot, the authorities arrest innocent people to put pressure on their opponents, and when the politics go cold, they get along well with each other and release them,” Sonil said yesterday.
“It’s a political game,” he said. “A children’s game.”
Additional reporting by Mech Dara and Buth Reaksmey Kongkea