Sopheap Chak

Riding the wave of change in Cambodia

Tag: justice (page 1 of 2)

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.

Will 2015 be a year of change for Cambodia’s land rights crisis?

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 30 December 2014)

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun

Boeung Kak Lake activist Nget Khun, calls to community members from a window at Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month after she was detained by authorities.Vireak Mai

 

Earlier this month, in Prey Sar prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I sat and talked with Tep Vanny, Song Srey Leap, Kong Chantha and Nget Khun, four inspirational activists from the city’s Boeung Kak lake community. They were jailed in early November after protesting against the now infamous 2007 real estate deal which saw the lake filled with sand and thousands of people forcibly evicted.

They looked pale and tired, but spoke with quiet dignity of their determination to seek justice for the loss of their land. In today’s Cambodia, they are not alone.

Steady economic growth and a large influx of aid since the end of civil war in the early 1990s have brought significant change to the country. According to World Bank estimates, Cambodia achieved the UN Millennium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2009, and Phnom Penh is now dotted with a growing number of sleek new apartment buildings, shopping malls and fashionable coffee shops.

However, as the country’s violent past recedes, Cambodia is in the grip of a volatile new conflict over land and natural resources. Policies pursuing economic liberalisation, export expansion and foreign investment have led to rising prices and an insatiable demand for land, leading to frequent clashes between the interests of local communities and politically connected big business. With large swathes of the country leased for commercial exploitation through economic land concessions, insecurity of tenure due to a widespread lack of formal land titles and weak rule of law have facilitated a wave of land grabs and forced evictions, sometimes accompanied by shocking levels of violence.

The scale of the problem can seem overwhelming, but despite the dangers, brave men and women across Cambodia are standing up to challenge violations of their land rights. Often, they are met with harassment and attacks. Within 36 hours of the arrest of seven Boeung Kak lake community activists on November 10, including those I met with, all had been detained, interviewed by a prosecutor, charged with obstructing traffic, tried, convicted and sentenced to a year in jail and issued a $500 fine, the maximum permitted under the law. A further three women and a monk faced similar treatment the following day, detained while protesting the arrest of their fellow activists and hastily convicted of obstructing public officials.

However, when complaints are lodged against powerful business interests attempting to forcibly acquire land, the justice system is not so nimble. In 2005, a dispute arose between the family of Ly Srea Kheng from Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district and a company owned by Khun Sear, a business associate of the head of the Senate President’s Bodyguard Unit. They have endured a campaign of threats and attacks by security guards hired by the company, including having a bag of venomous cobras thrown into their house. Despite several complaints filed before the courts, no action has been taken against the perpetrators. By contrast, following complaints from Khun Sear, police arrested Kheng on the morning of November 18 without showing a warrant or even allowing him time to get properly dressed. His 23-year-old daughter Ly Seav Minh was arrested later the same day. That evening, a company representative contacted Kheng’s son to negotiate, suggesting an abuse of the judicial process to force the family to accept the company’s terms. Kheng was bailed on December 5, but his daughter remains in detention.

Such harsh treatment of vulnerable people embroiled in land disputes does nothing to resolve the underlying problems, and can only exacerbate tensions among affected communities. As the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) has previously documented, one reason for the large number of disputes is a lack of adequate resolution mechanisms. Few people are even aware of those that do exist, which in any case have proved largely ineffective. Despite the many legal protections found in Cambodia’s Constitution, national and international law, illegal land grabs continue.

While institutional and judicial reform is certainly necessary, what is truly lacking is the political will to protect land rights in practice. Hun Sen’s “Heroic Samdech Techo Volunteer Youth” land-titling campaign, aimed at strengthening security of tenure through the provision of formal land titles, met with tentative initial praise, but proved highly problematic in execution and failed to assess disputed land. The government is currently developing a white paper on land policy and a new law on environmental impact assessments, initiatives that to its credit have involved consultations with civil society, but whether their concerns will be addressed remains to be seen.

In the absence of decisive action on the part of the government, local communities and civil society are coming up with innovative strategies to challenge land rights violations. After years of campaigning, activists from Boeung Kak lake welcomed Singaporean firm HLH’s recent decision to withdraw from the development for “commercial reasons”. Elsewhere, in a landmark case of transnational human rights litigation, villagers from Koh Kong have brought claims against UK sugar giant Tate and Lyle in the UK courts with support from the Community Legal Education Center. The villagers say that they were violently evicted from their land by armed military police to make way for sugar plantations, which the company subsequently sourced from.

While these noble efforts are to be lauded, the primary responsibility for dealing with insecurity of tenure and ensuring the peaceful resolution of disputes remains with the government. CCHR is calling for the release of all land activists detained simply for protesting violations of their human rights. In 2014, communities caught up in Cambodia’s land rights crisis stood up with bravery and resolve to demand change. I only hope that in 2015, the government will finally heed their calls.

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

Political judiciary versus an independent judiciary in Cambodia

(published on analysis and op-ed of the Phnom Penh Post, 21 November 2014)

Monks, activists and supporters take part in a protest at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison

Monks, activists and supporters take part in a protest at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison earlier this week to demand the release of 17 imprisoned activists, monks and opposition members. Vireak Mai

Political judiciary versus an independent judiciary in Cambodia

Fri, 21 November 2014

It is a surprise to no one that the judiciary in Cambodia is not an independent and impartial body. However, the recent wave of politically motivated arrests and speedy trials cannot pass unnoticed.

Over the past week, more than 15 people, including Meach Sovannara and Tep Narin of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), land rights activists and monks have been arrested, tried and convicted in a series of hurried and unfair trials. This crackdown on dissent is particularly timely for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), as it is in the midst of negotiations with the opposition party, the CNRP, on reforming the National Election Committee (NEC).

The government itself implicitly admitted using the judiciary as a political tool when, on November 15, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak stated that if the opposition was willing to collaborate more on the NEC, Meach Sovannara would not face a long jail term.

If Cambodia were truly democratic, there would be no place for such statements, and the law would protect citizens from abuses of power rather than being used as a tool to harass those expressing dissent.

The application of law should not be negotiable, no matter whose interests are at stake. However, Cambodians are again witnessing the opposite, and remain victims of judicial double standards: impunity for members of the security forces and government supporters is the rule, while activists and political opponents continue to be arrested, summarily tried, promptly convicted and imprisoned in most cases.

No one can forget the case of Chhuk Bundith, former Bavet city governor, who confessed to shooting three female factory workers protesting at Svay Rieng Special Economic Zone on February 20, 2012. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison for causing unintentional injuries by shooting, but remains free. Unfortunately, he is not the only one.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Ly Srea Kheng and his daughter Ly Seav Minh were arbitrarily arrested and rapidly prosecuted in Phnom Penh, with blatant violations of basic fair-trial rights. They have been involved in a land dispute with the Khun Sear Import Export Company. However, while Kheng and his family have attempted in vain to register their land with the authorities, the complaints against Kheng have been rapidly expedited.

What we have witnessed over the past few days is just another case of judicial harassment and double standards.

Cambodia’s courts have slowly improved over the past few years, but they remain substantially vulnerable to political influence and pressure from the executive. Until Cambodia’s judiciary undergoes appropriate reforms, including the much-needed amendments of the three controversial laws relating to the judiciary adopted in July, the people of Cambodia will not be able to fully enjoy their fundamental human rights.

The Cambodian government must ensure judicial independence and equality before the law, and end impunity. This has been repeatedly stated by the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, as he most recently reiterated in a statement on Tuesday.

In a country that professes to be a democracy and uphold the rule of law, judicial double standards are no longer tolerable.

Chak Sopheap is the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a nonpolitical, independent, nongovernmental organisation that works to promote and protect democracy and respect for human rights throughout Cambodia.

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