When a court on Friday granted freedom to 23 activists and workers arrested during a violent garment strike in January, another chapter in what has become a familiar tale was written.
Over the past two years, that tale has involved a series of high-profile cases against government critics, including Yorm Bopha and fellow land rights activists known as the “Boeung Kak 13”, as well as independent broadcaster Mam Sonando. And rarely has it deviated from the same plot.
Rights defenders have been arrested, swiftly convicted and imprisoned, or held in pre-trial detention and convicted later. Charges against them have been widely criticised, both here and overseas, as being “trumped up”.
Eventually, after trials or appeals in which little evidence has been presented and the charges even sometimes changed, the activists have been released to cheering supporters.
Yet, invariably, the activists have remained convicted criminals. They have not been acquitted, only given suspended sentences. At best, as in the case of Bopha, a retrial has been ordered and their names have not yet been cleared.
“Even though the Supreme Court is releasing me, they still consider me guilty,” Bopha said upon her release in November. “I’m scared they will arrest me again.”
It’s a fear shared by Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), who was released on Friday after being given a suspended prison sentence of four and a half years.
“I worry that the court will take legal action against me if I continue my work in the interest of workers or social issues,” Pov said.
Rights groups are seeing a pattern that stretches further than Bopha and Pov to other critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
“Their [the 23’s] arrest and conviction is symbolic of a trend to repress human rights defenders and protesters by the Royal Government of Cambodia,” Cambodian Center for Human Rights defenders project coordinator Chhay Chhunly said in a statement on Saturday. “The lack of any incriminatory evidence demonstrates that the verdict is based on political considerations rather than evidence.”
Before Friday’s decision, big brands that buy from Cambodia expressed concerns about the cases against the 23.
Similarities can be drawn with other cases.
The decision to free the 13 women from Boeung Kak in 2012 came after then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took an interest, while Bopha was released after her case also received global attention.
However, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan denied yesterday that outside factors played a part in court decisions.
“The public prosecutors decide in each case according to the [evidence] presented, and it is not for a party to make legal decisions,” he said. “If there is not enough [evidence to convict], the accused will be set free. That is the justice system in Cambodia.”
The international community taking an interest in such cases, however, does make a difference, according to Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.
“From the government’s perspective, each of these cases involves an ongoing calculation – how to intimidate groups so that they don’t protest or act against the government again, while at the same time trying to keep links to donor governments that [the] Cambodia government needs to fund many of their projects and activities,” he said.
“The government will get the guilty verdict it wants, but if there is major advocacy by embassies and international NGOs, then the courts are more likely to be lenient in their sentencing.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, has also noticed trends in how activists are dealt with.
“The accused can be released and can go home,” he said. “And the authorities are satisfied because they have reached a [guilty] verdict.”
For HRW, that’s not enough. Convictions against the 25, which included two workers arrested in November, should be overturned altogether.
It’s a sentiment shared by Chea Sarath, 31, one of the 25, who said at a ceremony at deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha’s home in Phnom Penh that he had not received “100 per cent justice”.
“I will appeal this court’s decision to the Appeal Court,” he said.