Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Category: Social Politics (page 2 of 6)

When Justice is a Prisoner

Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pov

Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association president Vorn Pov speaks from inside a police truck as it enters Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month. Heng Chivoan
Fri, 6 June 2014

In January, the government engaged in a violent crackdown on growing labour and opposition protests in and around Phnom Penh, resulting in the death of five people. Military forces and police also beat up protesters, and arrested 23 of them over the course of two days. Those arrested, including four prominent human rights defenders, are now known as “the 23”. The violence and arbitrary nature of their arrests, their five-month detention and the recent court verdicts finding them guilty illustrate the intolerance of the government towards anyone threatening its economic interests or its legitimacy.

Last Friday, judges announced the 23 had all been found guilty of acts of violence and related charges, and sentenced them to between one and four and a half years’ imprisonment. However, all sentences were suspended and the 23 were released the same day, in part due to growing pressure from international brands, international unions and international and local civil society. Brands such as H&M, Gap and Levi Strauss are important buyers for Cambodian factories and represent crucial economic interests, with the garment industry’s exports exceeding $4 billion in the first nine months of 2013 alone.

While it was heart-warming to see the mothers, fathers, wives and friends of the 23 cry with relief after learning that their loved ones would be set free and reunited with their families, their release should not overshadow the core issue that these verdicts represent and that is symptomatic of Cambodia’s judiciary: a lack of independence used by the government as a tool to suppress opposition voices.

The conviction comes after an obviously biased trial. Violations of the 23’s right to a fair trial were seen at every stage of the process, from the impunity with which security forces killed and injured protesters in January to the very courtroom in which a judge took on the role of prosecutor. During the five days of trials, no incriminatory evidence was presented and the defendants’ rights to a fair trial were repeatedly violated. Judges turned into prosecutors, blatantly assuming the guilt of defendants, qualifying protesters as “gangsters”, preventing defence lawyers from presenting evidence and censoring defendants’ testimonies. In light of the conduct of the hearing, there was no doubt regarding the political nature of the case: the 23 were in jail to set an example and to dissuade workers from protesting against an industry from which government officials and members of the elite greatly benefit.

The only thing the 23 could be found guilty of is having exercised their freedom of assembly, guaranteed by the constitution. Today they are free, but they remain guilty in the eyes of the court. The verdict illustrates that despite a lack of evidence, the judiciary could not openly dismiss the arrests made by security forces and instead handed down suspended sentences. The suspended sentences also now represent a constant threat hanging over their heads, while the five months they spent in prison stand as a reminder to anyone who protests of the risks they are taking. The happiness of seeing them free should not divert Cambodians or the international community from the reality of this verdict.

It is no secret that the judiciary in Cambodia is not independent and is partial to the interests of the elite and the government. It is not a tool for justice but rather a tool to suppress dissident voices. The government’s control of the judiciary will be further reinforced, as only a few weeks ahead of the verdict, the National Assembly adopted three laws “reforming” the judiciary.

The laws, which had been gathering dust for years, were rushed through a one-party assembly and adopted after only two days, despite repeated calls for consultation by the UN and civil society. Leaked drafts of the laws revealed that they will not reform the judiciary in a manner that would strengthen its independence as we had all hoped. Instead, they will reinforce the influence of the executive branch over the judicial and grant direct powers to the Ministry of Justice over the judiciary to advance and promote judges and prosecutors, control expenses and discipline judges.

If the judiciary were truly independent, the security forces responsible for beating up and arbitrarily arresting the 23 would be investigated as well. However, while the 23 stood trial and were convicted, not one military or police officer has been investigated or even simply questioned about the violence in January. The 23 are now free, but justice remains prisoner to the political manipulations and intimidations of the ruling party.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia?

Opposition vice president Kem Sokha shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Senate in July last year.
Opposition vice president Kem Sokha shakes hands with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Senate in July last year. Heng Chivoan
(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 21 April 2015)

As Cambodians return from celebrating the New Year, new threats to democracy and fundamental freedoms seem to be in the air.

Despite the repeated promises from the government to engage in significant reforms, including more cooperation with civil society, the latest statements and actions suggest the opposite. The recent adoption of the election laws seems to confirm a well-known pattern: crucial pieces of legislation are passed without meaningful public consultations.

Interestingly, this time the executive announced its intention to adopt the laws while its delegation in Geneva was engaging in a dialogue with the UN Human Rights Committee on the adherence of Cambodia to the provisions of the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights. It does not come as a surprise that in its concluding observations the committee then urged the government to ensure transparency in the drafting process and facilitate public dialogue.

This is in fact not the first time that the government had used these methods to adopt important laws. It is worth recalling that the three laws on the judiciary, which are to regulate one of the three fundamental powers of the state, were adopted with no constructive dialogue with civil society and while the opposition was boycotting the parliament. Those laws have proved not to ensure the independence of the judiciary and must be amended to that scope.

Now the two main parties have come to a compromise, and an apparent culture of dialogue has taken the place before held by confrontation. This development needs to be applauded as long as it involves open and constructive dialogue within political parties and with other stakeholders. Unsurprisingly, Cambodia ranked very low in the World Justice Project (WJP) Open Government Index 2015.

The intention recently expressed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and by other senior lawmakers to adopt a highly controversial Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) without any further public consultation is particularly worrying. According to unconfirmed information, the 2011 draft has been substantially changed, but no copy has been made public, with the clear intention of excluding civil society from the law-making debate. Despite how no real comment can be provided on a draft that is either four years old or a secret, it is especially alarming that civil society has not been consulted since 2011. This is a law that would severely affect NGOs’ ability to work and to carry out their role in society.

According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “civil society space is the place civil society actors occupy within society; the environment and framework in which civil society operates; and the relationships among civil society actors, the State, private sector and the general public”. What direction is civil society space taking in Cambodia? Are we moving forwards or backwards? Over the years, the space for public participation has undeniably improved, but much remains unachieved. A vibrant civil society is at the foundation of any democracy; therefore the space for civil society to operate should be protected and not threatened.

Freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs, are human rights ensured in the Cambodian Constitution and in international treaties that Cambodia has acceded. Those fundamental rights enable on one hand people to engage in the progress of their country and on the other states to move towards democracy. At present a political environment that values and encourages civic contribution is much needed in Cambodia. A real democracy requires transparency, public consultations and a strong commitment to uphold human rights.

It is high time for all political parties in Cambodia to work together to ensure such an environment and to cooperate with civil society, starting from holding consultations on the draft LANGO.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Cambodia needs to prioritise access to information law

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 18 February 2015)
Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange wearing Guy Fawkes masks

Supporters of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, stand outside the Ecuadorian Embassy in London in 2012. AFP

Cambodia needs to prioritise access to information law

Over the past few weeks, the government has repeatedly asserted its intention to introduce a state secrets law in Cambodia. In a country that has not yet adopted a solid access to information law and has showed no hesitancy in restricting freedom of expression, such declarations are a cause for serious concern. In fact, the public right of access to information is not only the other side to freedom of expression, it is the backbone of democracy.

In recent years, a significant number of states around the world have engaged in public debate over the balance between the right to information and the need for state secrets, subsequently adopting or revising classification regimes and related laws. Finding the right balance remains though a delicate exercise that requires attentive reflection and large consultations. In 2013, for example, Japan passed a state secrecy law that sparked widespread criticism and concerns as it includes serious threats to whistleblowers and even journalists reporting on areas the government defines as secrets.

Similarly, China has been internationally condemned for broadly classifying information as secrets and using its own state-secrets law to jail dissidents.

In 2013, 17 organisations and five academic centres, in consultation with four special rapporteurs on freedom of expression and the media from the UN, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as with the UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, issued a set of principles on national security and the right to information, the so-called Tshwane Principles. This authoritative document restated that national security and the public’s right to know do not go necessarily in the opposite direction.

This is certainly true, and the Cambodian government has repeatedly asserted that the draft law on state secrets would address national security issues, such as the leaking of secret information of the police, military and government. However, a state secrets law could help conceal government wrongdoings and further limit the right to information if clear standards or procedures for classifying or otherwise withholding information on security grounds are not properly established. Last year’s comments from Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan go in that direction. He made the suggestion that people were not supposed to have a copy of the leaked cybercrime draft law and that they could be in trouble.

Vagueness of the criteria used for classifying information as a “state secret” and a lack of transparency in the drafting process, which would not be new to the Cambodian government practice, are not an option when it comes to the right to information and in turn to democracy. In fact, no state secrets law should be passed until after an access to information law is adopted.

The timing of these declarations on a state secrets law is also very disappointing as national discussion and active campaigning for an access to information law has been on-going for more than a decade. Since 2001, NGOs working in the country have pushed for greater transparency and education of democratic rights that would in turn enhance the exercise of the right to freedom of expression.

A solid draft law and an amended version were submitted to the National Assembly in 2010 and 2012, respectively. Both were rejected.

Despite these efforts to increase access to information, government officials in Cambodia often simply choose not to implement the few provisions related to freedom of information that currently exist in domestic law, for example under the 1995 Law on the Press or the 2005 Archives Law. This, paired with a politically subservient judiciary and restrictive police force, has prevented Cambodia from developing a strong freedom of information framework and from exercising full freedom of expression.

Democracy requires an informed citizenship and accountable leadership. For these goals to be realised, the public’s right to know must be protected and positively enforced through legislation and the active implementation of freedom of information principles.

Certain information may legitimately be secret on grounds of national security or protection of other overriding interests. However, abuses of power occur when a government is not open and accountable. The lack of access to sufficient and accurate information severely hinders the ability of journalists and civil society to provide information and encourage debate. Increasing public access to information through the adoption of a comprehensive access to information law will allow Cambodians to exercise their democratic right to participate in decision-making processes and to freedom of expression. It will also equip them with the necessary information to make informed decisions about issues that affect them, in turn increasing the transparency and accountability of those individuals and bodies that wield power in Cambodia.

A secrecy law should not be adopted until the right of access to information is solidly guaranteed in the country. When a stronger legislative infrastructure on the right to information has been developed in Cambodia, national security could be considered as a legitimate while specific exception to that right.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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