(New York) – Two criminal cases decided in Phnom Penh on December 27, 2012, demonstrate the Cambodian government’s flagrant misuse of the justice system to undermine rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
Cambodia’s Court of Appeals upheld 20-year-sentences against Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, convicted after a grossly unfair trial, for the 2004 murder of prominent labor leader Chea Vichea. In the second case, a trial court sentenced land rights activist, Yorm Bopha, 29, to three years in prison, along with members of her family on politically motivated charges for her efforts organizing peaceful protests against land evictions.
The government should facilitate a dismissal of the charges against the three defendants and promptly release them, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Cambodian government has no shame in using the courts as an arm of oppression,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of protecting rights, Cambodia’s judiciary is being used to suppress dissent and undermine justice.”
After the ruling, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who had been released from prison in 2009 after an international outcry, were taken into custody to serve the remainder of their sentences at Prey Sar Prison’s Correctional Center 1 in Phnom Penh.
The January 22, 2004 killing of Chea Vichea, the leader of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, came amid a violent crackdown by the government to suppress the labor movement in Cambodia. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was also seeking to address political weaknesses after the 2003 national elections, in which the CPP won less than a majority of the popular vote, Human Rights Watch said.
Police arrested Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun for the killing, but in subsequent hearings it became clearthat both were being used as scapegoats. The absence of credible evidence was apparent to the case’s original investigating judge, Hing Thirith, who on March 19, 2004, ordered the release of the two suspects despite allegedly having been instructed by a senior government official to forward the case to trial. However, three days later, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, the body ostensibly tasked with ensuring judicial independence, removed Hing Thirith from his position.
In August 2005, a court convicted Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, and sentenced each to 20 years in prison after a trial that international observers regarded as unfair. In April 2007, the Court of Appeals upheld their convictions despite testimony from numerous witnesses supporting their alibis and the acknowledgement by the prosecutor that there was insufficient evidence. The ruling was strongly condemned internationally and by Cambodian civil society groups.
The Supreme Court returned the case to the Court of Appeals for retrial in 2008, and the two men were released on bail on January 1, 2009. On November 7, 2012, the Appeals Court held a three-hour hearing to retry their case. The court appeared to give no substantive consideration to evidence of culpability of government officials, but instead appeared to credit the coerced “confession” of Samnang on which the original judgment was in part based, and which Samnang has consistently repudiated in open testimony.
Chea Vichea’s brother Chea Mony in November said, “Myself, 99 percent I did not believe in the Cambodian court system. So I do not expect that the Court of Appeals will find the truth and justice for my elder brother in this case.”
In the Yorm Bopha case, the authorities on September 4, 2012, arrested Bohpa, a leader of the movement protesting mass evictions from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak area, and her husband after a street dispute that occurred after a man had stolen her car’s side mirrors. Bopha, her husband, and her brothers were accused of assaulting the man. In a quick trial, containing weak and contradictory witness statements, the four were convicted – the two brothers in absentia. Bopha was sentenced to three years in prison. The husband’s sentence was suspended and arrest warrants were issued for her brothers, who left the country. After the verdict, Bopha was returned to Prey Sar Prison Correctional Center 2 for women prisoners to serve her sentence. Another land rights activist, Tim Sakmony, was found guilty a day earlier of making a false declaration on problematic evidence and given a suspended prison sentence.
Cambodia has been ruled by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP for over 27 years. Most Cambodian judges and prosecutors are CPP members, some serving as high-level party officials. Dith Munthy, the chief judge of the Cambodian Supreme Court, is a member of the CPP’s Permanent Committee of the Central Committee and the party’s six-person Standing Committee.
“It is difficult at this point for anyone to have any faith in Cambodia’s justice system,” Adams said. “Cambodia’s courts today are little more than an extension of Hun Sen and his ruling party.”
In a November report, Human Rights Watch included the case of Chea Vichea among multiple cases in which the government charged innocent people in high-profile cases to avoid investigating official involvement. The report demonstrated a pattern of impunity for more than 300 politically motivated killings in the past 20 years. The government’s poor record continued in 2012 with suspect investigations into the April 2012 killing of environmental activist Chut Wutty and a February 2012 shooting of three protesting workers, in which a senior government official, Chhouk Bandit, was implicated.
Human Rights Watch reiterated its recent callfor the Cambodian government to appoint an independent commission to monitor the functioning of the police, prosecutors, and judges to assess their compliance with international human rights standards – both in cases involving government-linked perpetrators and those involving possibly politically motivated prosecutions of civil society activists, journalists, and others. Such a commission could investigate the killing of Chea Vichea and its alleged cover up by government personnel and other important human rights cases.
To promote the creation of a Cambodian monitoring commission, foreign donors and United Nations bodies should coordinate their efforts and establish their own monitoring mechanism, Human Rights Watch said. Disbursement of donor funding and pledges to the government should be based on the findings and recommendations of the Cambodian commission.
Several of Cambodia’s donors are parties to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements, which obligate them to work to promote human rights in Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said. The agreement’s signatories include the United States, Canada, China, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and the United Kingdom.
“International pressure needs to be brought on Cambodia to reform,” Adams said. “Parties to the 1991 Paris Accords should not abdicate their commitment to take active and concrete action to address Cambodia’s dire human rights situation.”