Cambodia: Courts of injustice

Cambodia’s government is using its courts to silence human rights defenders and political activists, Amnesty International says today in a new report.
Using its tight grip on the criminal justice system, the Cambodian government has brought a series of trumped-up charges against members of the political opposition, trade union activists, human rights activists, and political commentators, in an attempt to harass, intimidate and punish them.
“In Cambodia, the courts are tools in the hands of the government. 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,” said Champa Patel, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“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. It is essential that peaceful activists have all charges against them dropped and are immediately released.”
There are currently 27 human rights defenders and political activists behind bars while hundreds of others are subject to criminal proceedings as part of a concerted attempt by the government to crush any public criticism in the country, however peaceful.
The new briefing, Courts of Injustice, details how Cambodia’s opaque criminal justice system has been manipulated by the government to detain people on groundless charges before subjecting them to unfair trials.
The ADHOC five
One of the most prominent cases of persecution in 2016 involved the prolonged arbitrary detention of human rights defenders from ADHOC, the country’s oldest human rights organisation. Five current and former members of ADHOC staff were arbitrarily and unjustifiably charged with bribery over an alleged sex scandal. They have since spent over a year in pre-trial detention.
Kem Sokha, then Deputy President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who was allegedly involved in the scandal, and other members of his party, were also hit with a series of trumped up criminal charges.
The case of Tep Vanny
Another case highlighted in the briefing is that of Tep Vanny, Cambodia’s most high-profile activist who has been arrested at least five times since the last general election.
Currently behind bars for the third time as a prisoner of conscience, Tep Vanny is a housing rights activist who has spent a decade defending her community in central Phnom Penh, where thousands of families have been evicted from their homes.
Along with her fellow activists, many of them women, she has been targeted by the authorities on politically motivated charges, harassed, beaten, arrested and imprisoned. She is currently serving a 2½ year sentence.
Tep Vanny features in Amnesty International’s human rights defenders’ global campaign.
Leaving people in limbo
One of the ways in which people are ensnared by Cambodia’s criminal justice system is to let criminal cases against them languish, leaving them open without carrying out a preliminary investigation and prosecuting.
The effect of this is to leave the accused in a precarious state of uncertainty. Once a criminal complaint has been filed, the authorities can use it as a pretext to control the accused’s behaviour for years. At any moment, even years later, the case can be revived, without any effort being made to investigate or prosecute the matter in the intervening period.
At times, criminal investigations against human rights activists have remained open for an inordinate amount of time, leaving them in legal limbo for many years.
“Convenient” timing
Many of the cases examined by Amnesty International reveal that decisions on how cases should proceed are often made not on the basis of an investigation’s progress, but to coincide with political events, such as demonstrations, elections or negotiations with the opposition.
Bending the law to their will, the authorities often fail to adequately inform people accused of offences of the proceedings against them. In other cases, investigations and prosecutions only take place ahead of looming political events or public demonstrations, preventing key activists from taking part.
“Prosecutions do not appear to be driven by a desire to see justice done for past crimes, instead justice is travestied so that human rights defenders and political activists cannot exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Champa Patel.
Unfair trials and convictions
In cases where activists are brought to trial for peacefully exercising their rights, convictions almost automatically follow. Amnesty International knows of no case where a human rights defender or a political activist has been acquitted.
Only after international pressure has been brought to bear have the authorities released activists on suspended sentences.
“Cambodia desperately needs a justice system worthy of the name. As the government faces greater pressure from critics and opponents, it is likely to use the courts against more activists. Only a truly independent judiciary that holds the government to its international human rights obligations rather than acting on its whims can prevent further such injustices,” said Champa Patel.