Cambodians take to the streets in protest because their country’s justice system lacks independence from the government, according a rights group and defense lawyers, despite claims by officials that the demonstrations are illegal attempts at “putting pressure on the courts.”
Since the beginning of the year, Cambodian authorities have detained or jailed at least 17 members of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), as well as other activists, on charges of “incitement” after they made comments critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership.
The cases have prompted a recent spate of peaceful protests outside of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court by family members and supporters calling for their release.
Last week, Justice Minister Koeut Rith was quoted by the Canberra Times telling Australian Ambassador Pablo Kang that the arrests of political, human rights, and environmental activists were justified according to the law, as the protests had threatened the peace and stability of the nation.
“Gathering in the streets to protest the release of an individual is putting pressure on the courts and law enforcement, which is not the legal way and deviates from the principle of the rule of law,” he said, in response to comments Kang had made expressing concern over the arrests.
Detentions have gathered pace since the July 31 arrest of popular union leader Rong Chhun for criticizing the government’s handling of disputed territory along Cambodia’s shared border with Vietnam.
Koeut Rith’s comments followed an Aug. 3 press release issued by a Ministry of Justice spokesperson which said that in a nation that follows the rule of law, those charged with a crime should be defended in a court of law, rather than in the street.
“Accordingly, the accused, [union leader] Rong Chhun, has full constitutional rights to hire one or more top lawyers to defend his integrity and righteousness before the court of law,” the release said.
The statements from the Ministry of Justice were rejected by Brad Adams, the executive director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, who said that in a truly democratic country, people are less likely to take to the streets in protest because they place trust in their justice system.
“[Cambodians] expect that a fair legal process with lawyers on both sides would lead to a fair result,” he recently told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“For 20 years, that is what the mothers of those who were convicted have been doing, and that is what students and youth and unionists have been doing. In my experience almost all violence during protests in Cambodia over the years has been started by the police and the security forces, while the protesters have been 99.99 percent peaceful.”
Adams dismissed the notion that the people are putting pressure on the courts through peaceful protests, saying Cambodians understand the heavy influence on the justice system exercised by Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Prosecution always wins
The comments from Adams square with what lawyers in Cambodia have told RFA about their experiences representing defendants in political and human rights cases. They say that in such cases—which often focus on issues including unions, land grabs, and the environment—the prosecution always wins.
Sam Sok Kong, an attorney with the BPC law firm, said that in the 13 years he has been representing political and civil society activists, judges have never ruled in favor of his defense.
“I take up cases of dissenting politicians and activists from civil society groups,” he said.
“The reason that I never win this type of case is because the courts in Cambodia are not independent and are under political influence.”
Outspoken lawyer Choung Choungy concurred, saying that since 2007 he has represented hundreds of cases related to land disputes, unions, and politics, but no matter how much effort he puts into his legal defense, he never wins.
“The first group of my clients include politicians, land activists, and human rights or democracy activists,” he said. “For this first group, the judge has never ruled in my favor.”
However, Choung Choungy said, when Hun Sen issues an order, the courts immediately act, such as last year when dozens of political prisoners were released.
“In late 2019 when the news of [acting CNRP President] Sam Rainsy’s plan to return to Cambodia [from self-imposed exile] broke out, there was a spate of arrests of opposition activists and supporters in which nearly 100 people were jailed,” he said.
“Our defense team fought so hard to have them released, but the court did not listen to us. But, when the prime minister said only a few words from Kampot province [ordering them released], the court freed all of them immediately [mostly on bail].”
Choung Choungy said his second group of clients are non-politicians whose “normal cases” he wins and loses, much like other defense lawyers.
Both defense attorneys told RFA that despite the fact they are unsuccessful in political cases because the Cambodian judiciary is “trampled by political influence,” their clients understand the environment. They suggested that within the current environment, political litigation can be only settled through dialogue.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after leader Kem Sokha’s arrest, for its role in opposition leader’s alleged scheme. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Human Rights Watch’s Adams told RFA the Justice Ministry’s claim that the relatives of defendants in political cases can find good lawyers to fight in court, rather than protesting in the streets is “a joke,” and that doing so would only be worthwhile if the government was willing to guarantee a fair trial for everyone.
“We know that in Cambodia anybody that Hun Sen or the CPP or the police wants to convict for a political crime, essentially for only being involved in politics, will be convicted,” he said.
“The best lawyer in the world is not going to change that because the judges are not making decisions based on the facts and evidence. They make decisions based on what they are instructed to do or based on their fear of what will happen to them if they do not do what is expected, or convict critics and political opponents.”
Fundamental freedoms poll
On Friday, local nongovernmental organizations the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and Adhoc issued the latest findings from their multi-year Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project that measures the space for civil society in Cambodia, including the degree to which the freedoms of association, expression and assembly are understood and can be exercised.
Based on approximately 1,000 participants in 2016, 2018, 2019, and 2020, the project found that people feel less free to participate in political life, speak openly in public, or express themselves on social media.
Fewer people feel free to peacefully assemble, strike or demonstrate and they also feel less safe reporting information to the media, said the survey, which was undertaken in conjunction with Washington-based groups Solidarity Center and the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law.
Responding to the findings, ruling party spokesperson and secretary-general of the Supreme Council for Consultation and Recommendations Chhim Phal Virun told RFA that every institution is entitled to conduct its own polls, but suggested that freedom in Cambodia is “different” from that in the U.S.
“In Cambodia, people, culture, and politics are narrow-minded—people’s perceptions are still weak. Therefore, we can’t make a comparison,” he said.
“Even the space for freedom in Germany, where people are highly knowledgeable and educated, is still different from that of America.”
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