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Smith calls for ‘release’ of Sokha as visit ends

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Kem Sokha speaks at the office of the court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party in Phnom Penh in 2016. Heng Chivoan

Smith calls for ‘release’ of Sokha as visit ends

At a press conference to conclude her 11-day visit to Cambodia, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith on Thursday called for treason charges against former opposition leader Kem Sokha to be dropped and for him to be released from “restricted detention”.

However, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan criticised the call, saying it is “impossible”. He also accused Smith of forgetting the “positive developments” Cambodia has made regarding human rights.

During her trip, Smith met senior government officials, representatives of civil society and members of the diplomatic community.

She is to present a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council next September.

During the 40-minute press briefing at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Phnom Penh, to field questions on her visit, Smith said she and government officials had openly discussed human rights and sustainable development in Cambodia.

She said she had expressed her support for the Cambodian government’s recent renewal of a two-year mandate for the OHCHR in the Kingdom.

“I warmly welcome the extension of the memorandum of understanding and the willingness of the government to work closely with the OHCHR in-country in the promotion and protection of human rights,” Smith said.

She said that over the past year she had received numerous reports of civil society activities being “stopped and hindered” after a Ministry of Interior instruction in October last year requiring civil society organisations to give prior notification of their activities.

Smith noted the royal pardons of opposition figures and Boeung Kak community land activist Tep Vanny, as well as the suspended sentences in the case of the Adhoc 5.

She said she remained concerned that Sokha, the former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), remained under court-supervised bail with his rights and freedoms curtailed more than 14 months after his arrest and following more than a year in prison.

“I call for the lifting of the sentences against Tep Vanny and the [Adhoc 5]. I remain concerned about the charges pending against the [former Radio Free Asia] journalists."

“I also call for the release of Kem Sokha from restricted detention and for the swift conclusion of the investigation into his case to ensure his right to a trial within a reasonable time, based on a clear and transparent evaluation of the evidence, or for the charges to be dropped.”

Smith called on the Ministry of Justice to ensure that all court-related fees are prominently posted in the court premises, are clearly visible to the public, and placed in such a way that they cannot be removed.

“I also call on the Ministry of Justice and judicial institutions to be more transparent in relation to their operations, including in the criteria and methods used to decide the promotion and transfer of judges and prosecutors, and to take more active steps to combat corruption and strengthen judicial independence and impartiality.”

Smith call ‘impossible’

Responding to her comments, Siphan said Smith’s concerns were made by someone who rarely came to Cambodia, while the Cambodian government was addressing some of the concerns she mentioned.

“I think [Smith’s] worries [are those] of a person who comes to Cambodia rarely. She forgot about the positive developments made in Cambodia in response to the challenges in human right issues. The government reformed the judicial system, while all human rights are protected by the rule of law.

“Some issues . . . the government knows already. Smith just learned [about them] from us. What we requested is she does not do anything that goes beyond her authority, such as go against our Supreme Court and Phnom Penh Municipal Court decisions,” he said.

Siphan said Smith’s request for Sokha to be released or have his charges dropped was “impossible”.

“Kem Sokha is a suspect under investigation by the court system, and the Cambodian Constitution clearly states that the court system cannot be interfered or put under pressure by anybody – even Prime Minister Hun Sen does not have the ability to intervene in it, ” he said.

Ou Chanrath, a former CNRP lawmaker, supported Smith’s statement and said he was optimistic about her visit. “I believe it can widen the space for democracy and respect for human rights,” he said.

He also supported the “release” of Sokha, saying, “it is right, and I 100 per cent agree with releasing Kem Sokha. It has been over a year and there is still no evidence [supporting the charges].

“So his release is the important thing,” he said.

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