Wading into the debate for the first time, Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed allegations yesterday that the recent arrests of land activists, monks and opposition members were politically motivated, and said there is nothing he can do to secure the detainees’ release from prison.
Following days of criticism over the judiciary’s alleged lack of independence, the premier warned critics to “be careful with their words”.
Speaking to hundreds of students at a graduation ceremony at the National Institute of Education, Hun Sen said that while July marked the end of the country’s political deadlock, it did not put an end to the judiciary’s authority.
“I would like to confirm that the political agreement on July 22 was not an agreement to finish the legal procedure of the courts in penal cases,” he said.
The prime minister said that “it is not good to put gasoline on the fire”, explaining that critics should “let the court work on its legal process in order to strengthen the rule of law and democracy”.
The government and judiciary have come under fire for a spate of arrests, charges and convictions in recent days, dealt at breakneck speed and on the basis of seemingly little evidence.
The detainees include 10 land activists, three monks and members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Seventeen members of the CNRP have been charged since July for their alleged role in a protest that turned violent. Four are currently imprisoned.
On Tuesday, a father and daughter who claim to have been victims of a string of abuses – including having snakes thrown into their home – over the course of a long-term land dispute with a politically connected company were arrested and imprisoned.
A group of NGOs yesterday issued a joint statement condemning the “arbitrary arrests” of the pair who, if convicted, could be dealt jail terms of between six months and two years.
Earlier this week, Surya Subedi, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, said the courts were being used “again and again as a tool of the executive”.
“The lack of judicial independence is one of the central obstacles to achieving the just, inclusive society that Cambodians strive for. The recent conduct of the courts demonstrates once again the need for an independent judiciary in Cambodia,” he said.
But Hun Sen was adamant yesterday that the cases are out of his control.
“The government has no right to order the judiciary, if [it did], I could order [the court] to free those who were arrested,” he said, adding that, according to Cambodian legal procedure, the court will give the defendants 60 days to appeal their cases, and after the final verdict, he will have the right to request their pardon.
Observers suggested to the Post last week that cases have been intentionally rushed through the court, so that the government could place the blame on the judiciary.
They also said that the spate of action is likely linked to negotiations over the National Election Committee, with the ruling party using it to pressure the opposition to adhere to its demands.
But yesterday Hun Sen said it was the opposition that should not use the current court cases as a sticking point for the negotiations.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann dismissed Hun Sen’s claims that he could not intervene in the court proceedings.
“Civil society and the international community say there is a political motivation, so therefore there must be a political solution,” he said. “Everyone knows that the court is not independent.”
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun drew the same conclusion.
“We can see that the judiciary is not independent, [so] we can only conclude that [the arrests are politicised].”