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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Worrying start for rights for the year so far

Worrying start for rights for the year so far

I t's been a eventful and chaotic past few weeks on the Cambodian legal scene. In

early March, the U.S. State Department issued its Country Report on Cambodia outlining

its Human Rights Practices for 1995. While optimistically stating that Cambodians

fared better last year than they did under more strident regimes prior to the 1993

elections, "summary killings, a judiciary that was not independent in practice

and denials of free speech," made 1995 a grim year for human rights.

The current year 1996 is not off to a auspicious start. First, the Prince Sirivudh

trial and then, on March 9, 1996, Editor Ly Chandara was deported to Vietnam along

with two other ethnic Vietnamese by Cambodian authorities. Interior Ministry spokesman

Heng Hak said, "the three men were arrested and immediately deported to Vietnam."

Cambodian officials claimed that the three men were among a group of 38 individuals

detained on December 2, 1995 for their alleged involvement in an anti-Hanoi campaign

known as the Vietnam Tudo (Free Vietnam) movement. (See, "Anti-Vietnamese plotters

arrested and warned," December 15-28, 1995, Phnom Penh Post.)

Nevertheless, a significant step in the right direction was taken on March 14, 1996,

when a ground-breaking Inter-Ministerial Meeting was convened at the Ministry of

Justice to discuss the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading

Treatment or Punishment. Representatives from the Ministries of Justice, Interior,

Defense, prison officials, judges, court personnel, representatives from the UN Center

for Human Rights and NGOs, discussed the Convention and ways to meaningfully implement

it in Cambodia.

The seminar was intended, in part, to act as a catalyst to "get the ball rolling."

Cambodia is a signatory to this Convention. The juxtaposition of this seminar, however,

coming on the heels of an extra-judicial deportation, was more than ironic. It emphasized,

yet again, the "one step forward, two step backward" waxing and waning

of Cambodia's justice.

On March 15, 1996, thirteen ethnic Vietnamese entered the US Embassy grounds seeking

protection from feared deportation to Vietnam. They left the Embassy after obtaining

assurances from the Interior Ministry that they would not be arrested or deported

if they "obeyed the laws and were not involved in illegal activities."

Representatives from the UNHCR were also present in the meetings.

What is most disturbing about these events - the deportations in particular - is

the apparent disregard for judicial and legal norms. Cambodia currently maintains

no extradition treaty with Vietnam. Ly Chandara, Nguyen Ming Mung and Nguyen Phong

Seun were all illegally deported. Moreover, Ly Chandara, while of Vietnamese ethnicity,

was clearly a Cambodian national. He was born in Cambodia, as was his mother. He

spoke Khmer and had documents proving his long-term existence in the country. In

an earlier Phnom Penh Post interview, he had spoken about his fear of deportation.

As the participants of the Seminar on Torture can surely recite, Article 13 of the

Convention against Torture explicitly states that, "no State Party shall expel,

return or extradite a person to another

State where there are substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger

o being subject to torture."

In an interview with the Phnom Penh Post in December, 1995, Ly Chandara clearly expressed

his sentiment that he did not want to go to Vietnam. Hanoi authorities wanted to

arrest and jail him, he said, even though he was a Khmer citizen.

By immediately deporting Ly Chandara, Cambodia breached its obligations under the

Convention against Torture. The thirteen persons who entered the US Embassy have

also similarly expressed a well-founded fear of persecution should they be deported

to Vietnam. Their actions speak clearly of their fears.

Cambodia is also a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political

Rights ("ICCPR"). And under this Covenant, it clearly failed Ly Chandara

and the other two individuals. Article 13 of the ICCPR states that, "an alien

lawfully in the territory of a State Party to the present Covenant may be expelled

therefrom only in pursuance of a decision reached in accordance with the law and

shall . . . be allowed to submit reasons against his expulsion and to have his case

reviewed by, and be represented by the competent authority."

First, Ly Chandara was not an "alien." He was in possession of a press

card and a voting registration card for the 1993 UN-monitored elections. Moreover,

assuming for the moment that he was an alien, he would still be entitled to a hearing

by a court or competent authority. Immediate deportation was not warranted, especially

given his well-founded fear and concerns.

The Royal Cambodia Government and the Ministry of Justice, in particular, has made

significant progress in attempting to institute a legal consciousness or "rule

of law" in the country. Reckless and irresponsible acts such as the deportation

of Ly Chandara - a Khmer national - and two other ethnic Vietnamese, fly in the face

of recognized international standards of conduct. Moreover, they are in direct contravention

of international law.

While the deportation may prove politically expedient, they are most costly - in

personal terms - to the families and individuals deported. Hanoi takes a very dim

view of any dissent - political or otherwise. It's recent "social evils"

campaign where foreign signs and name brands were targeted, was seen, largely, as

an attempt by Vietnamese leaders to put the brakes on foreign ideas and influences

and re-assert political control. As the Vietnamese Government heads towards its all

important National Party Congress dissenting views are not to be tolerated. Recent

activism by Buddhist monks and other forms of protests were severely dealt with by

long and harsh prison terms. Ly Chandara and the others will probably face similar

circumstances.

After the deportation, Amnesty International issued an "urgent action"

letter criticizing the Cambodian Interior Ministry's action and called upon the Vietnamese

government to account for the three deportees. Cambodia's blunder has caused embarrassment,

heartache and pain in many circles.

- (The author of this commentary is a Western lawyer who does not wish to be named.)

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