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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sokhon case spurs rights tensions

Sokhon case spurs rights tensions

The re-arrest of Chao Sokhon while he sat in a UN Center for Human Rights vehicle

Jan 3 may further poison relations between the government and the rights office,

whose working agreement is due to expire in two months' time.

The incident has also sparked concerns about a possible breach of the UN's diplomatic

immunity, although the government has gone to some lengths - including a televised

police press conference - to explain its actions.

Sokhon, freed from prison Dec 29 after the Court of Appeal overturned two drug convictions

against him, was being helped to leave the country by UNCHR officials when he was

arrested.

While justice officials say Sokhon was mistakenly released, rights workers say they

believed he had been cleared of all charges and was a free man. They assisted him

after he complained of police death threats.

Apparently acting on a tip-off, Municipal Police Chief Mok Chito, a CPP stalwart,

and several police officers - some dressed in civilian clothes - descended upon a

UN rights office vehicle which had taken Sokhon to Pochentong airport.

"[The UN] car was opened by force. Mok Chito climbed in through the back of

the car and five of his men went in through the doors," said one witness. "They

were aggressive."

During the tense standoff that followed - in which police asked Sokhon to step out

of the car and he refused - some of the police attempted to handcuff several Cambodian

UN rights officials. Eventually, an agreement was struck with then-UNCHR director

David Hawk for the rights workers and the police to jointly take Sokhon to PJ prison

in the UN vehicle, rather than allowing the police to take him by themselves.

Some rights workers expressed dismay at the government's behaviour, accusing them

of violating diplomatic immunity. "The notion of legality, national or international,

has no meaning for these people," said one.

Government officials said they were unsure whether a UN vehicle is afforded the same

diplomatic immunity as an embassy or an ambassador's residence.

According to the international convention on the privileges and immunities of the

UN: "The United Nations, its property and assets wherever located and by whomsoever

held, shall enjoy immunity from every form of legal process except insofar as in

any particular case it has expressly waived its immunity."

The convention also says: "The property and assets of the UN, wherever located

and by whomsoever held, shall be immune from search, requisition, confiscation, expropriation

and any other form of interference whether [it] be executive, administrative, judicial

or legislative action."

One Western ambassador expressed shock over the police action, saying:"If that

was our car, I would be on the phone yelling."

While it remains to be seen whether the police actions were legal or not, he said:

"It certainly is an offense to good diplomatic sense. These are the kinds of

things that will be interpreted as a bad omen."

Minister of Justice Chem Snguon said many details of the incident remain unclear,

but noted that the police do not have the right to use force of any type against

UN personnel.

"But neither you nor I know what happened that day. That is why I am waiting

for a protest from the UN... to find out what happened."

The rights office is invest-igating the legal aspects of the incident, and is then

expected to send a letter to Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, the UNCHR - which has been repeatedly criticised by Second Prime Minister

Hun Sen, including for allegedly encouraging people to leave the country in the months

after the July coup - is set to begin talks over the continuation of its working

agreement. Its current memorandum of understanding with the Cambodian government

expires in March.

"I think [the issue] will be raised this week," said the rights office's

new director, Rosemary Mc-Creery, noting that she will meet Foreign Minister Ung

Huot Jan 16.

She said the issue will also be "high on the agenda" for the upcoming visits

of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, from Jan 22-25, and Ambassador

Thomas Hammar-berg, the UN Secretary General's human rights envoy, who is expected

to arrive this weekend.

In recent visits, Hammarberg has defended the UNCHR's investigations into more than

40 alleged political killings since July, in the face of criticism by Hun Sen.

Hun Sen, who has called for the replacement of UNCHR staff, also suggested the government

would set up its own human rights body.

The Justice Minister, whom Hun Sen has asked to help set up the government rights

office, said he was unsure whether the UNCHR mandate would be extended, but it might

not be necessary.

"I don't know if the government will ask for an extension. It is possible that,

for the elections, they will extend [the agreement] for another year or a few months.

In any case, it is not necessary because there will be UN [election] observers."

But Snguon said he did not believe the government would use the re-arrest of Sokhon

to undermine an extension of the agreement.

The Western ambassador reacted strongly to the possibility of the closure of the

UN rights office, saying that Hun Sen would be "shooting himself in the foot"

by jeopardising foreign aid and assistance for the July elections.

Meanwhile, Chao Sokhon, a 39-year-old father of five, is back at PJ prison where

he has reportedly suffered a mild heart attack since being returned to prison.

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