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Political judiciary versus an independent judiciary in Cambodia

Monks, activists and supporters take part in a protest at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison
Monks, activists and supporters take part in a protest at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison earlier this week to demand the release of 17 imprisoned activists, monks and opposition members. Vireak Mai

Political judiciary versus an independent judiciary in Cambodia

It is a surprise to no one that the judiciary in Cambodia is not an independent and impartial body. However, the recent wave of politically motivated arrests and speedy trials cannot pass unnoticed.

Over the past week, more than 15 people, including Meach Sovannara and Tep Narin of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), land rights activists and monks have been arrested, tried and convicted in a series of hurried and unfair trials. This crackdown on dissent is particularly timely for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), as it is in the midst of negotiations with the opposition party, the CNRP, on reforming the National Election Committee (NEC).

The government itself implicitly admitted using the judiciary as a political tool when, on November 15, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak stated that if the opposition was willing to collaborate more on the NEC, Meach Sovannara would not face a long jail term.

If Cambodia were truly democratic, there would be no place for such statements, and the law would protect citizens from abuses of power rather than being used as a tool to harass those expressing dissent.

The application of law should not be negotiable, no matter whose interests are at stake. However, Cambodians are again witnessing the opposite, and remain victims of judicial double standards: impunity for members of the security forces and government supporters is the rule, while activists and political opponents continue to be arrested, summarily tried, promptly convicted and imprisoned in most cases.

No one can forget the case of Chhuk Bundith, former Bavet city governor, who confessed to shooting three female factory workers protesting at Svay Rieng Special Economic Zone on February 20, 2012. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for causing unintentional injuries by shooting, but remains free. Unfortunately, he is not the only one.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Ly Srea Kheng and his daughter Ly Seav Minh were arbitrarily arrested and rapidly prosecuted in Phnom Penh, with blatant violations of basic fair-trial rights. They have been involved in a land dispute with the Khun Sear Import Export Company. However, while Kheng and his family have attempted in vain to register their land with the authorities, the complaints against Kheng have been rapidly expedited.

What we have witnessed over the past few days is just another case of judicial harassment and double standards.

Cambodia’s courts have slowly improved over the past few years, but they remain substantially vulnerable to political influence and pressure from the executive. Until Cambodia’s judiciary undergoes appropriate reforms, including the much-needed amendments of the three controversial laws relating to the judiciary adopted in July, the people of Cambodia will not be able to fully enjoy their fundamental human rights.

The Cambodian government must ensure judicial independence and equality before the law, and end impunity. This has been repeatedly stated by the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, as he most recently reiterated in a statement on Tuesday.

In a country that professes to be a democracy and uphold the rule of law, judicial double standards are no longer tolerable.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a nonpolitical, independent, nongovernmental organisation that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights throughout Cambodia.

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