Cambodia’s judiciary remains in the iron grip of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government, according to an extensive new International Commission of Jurists report, which found that “the rule of law is virtually absent from the Cambodian justice system”.
“[The] single largest problem facing the Cambodian justice system is the lack of independent and impartial judges and prosecutors,” the authors write.
The report argues that Cambodia has a range of international and domestic legal obligations, which are often wilfully ignored by the court system. This, they write, includes the misuse of the judiciary to strengthen the rule of the governing CPP. One example given is of a ruling party meeting in which a strategy is discussed to sway the legal system in the CPP’s favour.
“Suggesting that all of this activity [of using court cases] may have been part of a carefully crafted plan, official minutes of a CPP central committee meeting revealed the party’s intentions to weaken the opposition through, among other avenues, the application of further legal pressure on the judiciary,” the report says.
Indeed, the government has repeatedly tweaked the law before using it to justify controversial actions, including recent moves to dissolve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and measures targeting NGOs.
They also cite the targeting of journalists with lawsuits, and rampant impunity – notably in the case of political commentator Kem Ley, who was gunned down in broad daylight in a murder that is widely believed to be political.
They refer to the arrests of Nhek Bun Chhay, president of the Khmer National United Party; Sourn Serey Ratha, president of the Khmer Power Party – whose five-year conviction for “incitement” was upheld yesterday by the Appeal Court; and the Interior Ministry’s complaint with the Supreme Court asking for the CNRP’s dissolution.
Chin Malin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice, dismissed the report, which he said was biased. “It is politically motivated to degrade the royal government,” he said. “This group did a study and evaluation based on one-sided information. Specifically they did not work with the relevant judicial institutes or the royal government.”
According to a methodology note in the report, the researchers interviewed lawyers, prosecutors, judges, Justice Ministry officials and Bar Association representatives, among others.
Kingsley Abbott, senior international legal adviser for Southeast Asia at the ICJ, said yesterday at a press conference in Bangkok that the government has been using the rule of law to justify oppression. “The use of the rule of law by Cambodia in this way as a sword to purge its opponents, rather than what it’s intended to be – which is a shield to protect citizens from arbitrary state action – is now a familiar part of the government’s narrative,” he said.
Abbott called for the Paris Peace Accords signatory states to convene under Article 29 of the agreement, which applies in the event of a violation or threat of violation of the agreement. The text enshrines a multiparty democracy in Cambodia and obliges the government to respect human rights.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Human Rights Watch director, said at the conference that the opposition’s gain in the commune elections in June this year had been a turning point. “It seems that that finally triggered what was a long-staged plan by the CPP in the disguise of the ‘colour revolution’ that they were speaking about,” he said.
He said the looming dissolution of the CNRP would – if carried out – make next year’s election “a bit of a joke”.
In an email, he also called for sanctions should this happen. “[The European Union] and Japan should immediately cut their existing and future funding for the election, withdraw all their experts, and publicly declare that with the major opposition party dissolved, there can be no free or fair election.”
He also said the United States should consider imposing targeted sanctions against government, CPP and military officials if the situation continued to worsen. “The mixture of travel bans, seizures of assets in the US, and loss of ability to do business with financial institutions that do business with the US are serious blows, but they will be deserved if the CNRP is dissolved and the situation continues to worsen,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan shrugged off the call for sanctions, arguing the Cambodian government had no influence on the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the CNRP. “We are a sovereign state. We have to do what we have to do,” he said. “They do whatever they like to do.”
Siphan said he was unconcerned about his personal assets in America. “I’m not corrupt . . . My assets are my assets.”
Asked what he stood to lose if the US did decide to seize personal assets of senior government officials, he asked a reporter if they were a spy before seemingly threatening to get the judicial system involved. “If you want to know, I bring you to court,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean