CAMBODIA’s criminal justice system appears to be being manipulated by the government to target human rights defenders and political opposition activists, says a new report by rights watchdog Amnesty International (AI).
Some 27 activists have been put in jail since the last general election in July 2013, while hundreds more are subject to ongoing criminal proceedings and the daily threat of arrest and imprisonment, says the report entitled Courts of Injustice.
“In Cambodia, the courts are tools in the hands of the government,” said Champa Patel, AI’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“Much lip-service is paid to the judiciary’s independence, but the evidence reveals a cynical manipulation of the criminal justice system to serve political goals and silence people whose views the government refuses to tolerate,” he said.
According to AI, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has a tight grip over the judiciary, with a member of its own party the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a member of the body responsible for appointing judges.
The report documents several case studies, including the case of five current and former staff of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), the country’s oldest human rights organisation.
The human rights defenders involved have been imprisoned for more than a year on dubious charges of bribing a witness. Last month, an investigating judge extended their pre-trial detention for a further six months.
ADHOC were reportedly targeted by the courts when they provided legal assistance to a woman allegedly romantically linked to the current head of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), Kem Sokha.
One of the detained, Lim Mony, told AI that she had worked “neutrally, with no party” throughout her two-decade career and was “not involved in any political issue.”
Cambodia’s government has faced criticism for cracking down on political opposition and rights advocates in the lead up to the June 4 council commune elections and national elections next year.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for three decades – making him one of the longest serving world leaders on the planet.
A March report from Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) argued that Cambodia’s democracy is being “systematically dismantled.” The former head of the CNRP Sam Rainsy was forced to resign in February under specifically-designed legislation on political parties.
One international NGO worker told Asian Correspondent that the Cambodian government had warned foreign organisations against using the term “human rights” in their work.
The source’s employer had issued a directive to “seriously reconsider” their need to speak out on sensitive political issues, or even discuss Cambodian politics at all while in public.
“Far from letting justice take its course on the basis of law, our research shows how procedural rules are bent to serve a set purpose, delivering pre-determined outcomes at the behest of the government,” adds Patel.
AI points to the case of Tep Vanny – Cambodia’s most high-profile activist who has long campaigned on behalf of her community in central Phnom Penh, where hundreds of families have been forcefully evicted from their homes.
Arrested five times since the last election and currently serving a 2-and-a-half-year sentence, the watchdog says Tep Vanny has faced politically motivated charges, harassment, beatings and arbitrary imprisonment.
“It is essential that peaceful activists have all charges against them dropped and are immediately released,” said Patel.
“While the mechanics of harassment are complicated, the steps required to end the abuse of the criminal justice system [are] not,” the report concludes.