Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva yesterday, Special Rapporteur for Cambodia Rhona Smith denounced the government for using the country’s judiciary as a weapon to stifle political opponents.
Outlining the findings of her first report on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Smith drew attention to a number of cases that appear to target the political opposition or activists who voice disapproval of the government.
“There is no doubt that certain laws are increasingly being used to stymie political debate and accountability,” Smith said. “Respect for the rule of law in a democratic society does not mean rule by law, with laws applied in a manner which restricts free political debate.”
Several of the most prominent cases mentioned in Smith’s 10-minute speech were the arrest of three activists from the environmental organisation Mother Nature, last week’s conviction of National Election Committee official Ny Chakrya, and the arrest and detention of human rights workers with the NGO Adhoc.
Special attention was also given to the improper use of pre-trial detention.
“All these individuals remain in detention awaiting trial. This group includes Mr Ny Chakrya,” Smith said. “Their alleged crimes still appear based on legitimate work undertaken as human rights defenders. Charges should be proven or the individuals released immediately.”
Cambodia has progressed in many ways in the 25 years since the Paris Peace Accords brought an end to armed conflict, Smith acknowledged. But the benefits of progress have not been felt equally among the country’s citizens, and recent developments call into question the independence of the judiciary and the government’s willingness to protect human rights, she added.
If Cambodia’s judiciary is as independent as the government claims, Smith continued, then the only logical conclusion is that the laws are “capable of being applied” in ways that restrict human rights. Consequently, Smith called for laws to be reviewed and revised.
Moreover, she said there is an “urgent need” to revise standards of legal proof given the number of convictions based on questionable evidence. As an example, Smith mentioned the case of opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour, who was convicted of forgery despite a lack of evidence that the document in question – a purported copy of a controversial border treaty with Vietnam – was forged or altered by the accused.
The government’s decision to revoke parliamentary immunity for opposition lawmakers in the wake of pressing charges, such as in the case of Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha, was also mentioned.
Following Smith’s speech, country delegates and representatives of NGOs were given an opportunity to respond.
Representatives from the EU, the US, the International Committee of Jurists and Human Rights Watch, among others, expressed concern over the disintegration of the so-called “culture of dialogue” between political parties, and called for an independent investigation into the July murder of political analyst Kem Ley.
“We are deeply concerned by the conviction in absentia of the active leader of the opposition,” said the representative of the UK, referring to party president Sam Rainsy, currently in self-imposed exile to avoid jail time. “We hope [Prime Minister Hun Sen’s] recent comments about a ceasefire will lead to a dialogue.”
Meanwhile, members of the international human rights community responded positively to Smith’s speech.
“We welcome that her presentation was stronger than her report, and it highlighted the complaints she received about the Adhoc five and Kem Ley, which were missing,” said Iniyan Llango, program manager at the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development.
“She said freedom of assembly and association would be a priority, so we see that as a positive sign.”
Smith’s original report was submitted in May, and did not include information about more recent events, including Ley’s murder.
Cambodia’s delegation, meanwhile, didn’t respond positively to the speech.
“Our people are enjoying a harmonious life, with peace and stability and economic growth. It is wrong, if not improper, to say that there is political instability,” a Cambodian delegate said. “As a sovereign state, we deny any interference in our internal affairs.”
That sentiment was echoed by China, Indonesia, Myanmar and Laos, who called for the international community to respect Cambodia’s unique road to democracy.
During an interview with Voice of America released yesterday, Foreign Minister Prak Sokhon also defended the judiciary against the recent spate of criticism of its treatment of the CNRP.
“If we look at each tree in the forest, we see that individuals are involved in court proceedings, not the party.”