The surprising pardon last week of a Thai man convicted on espionage charges demonstrates the ongoing politicization of the judicial system, observers say.
Siwarak Chothipong, a 31-year-old engineer for the Thai company that monitors Cambodia’s air traffic control, was facing a seven-year sentence and a 10 million riel fine, about $2,500, before he was pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni just four days after his conviction.
Siwarak was found guilty on Tuesday, Dec. 8, of leaking information about a flight to Thai Embassy officials, as ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra arrived in Cambodia as a the newest economic adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
By Friday, he had been pardoned, and on Monday he received a Mercedes escort from Prey Sar prison to Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh residence, in the shadow of Independence Monument, where he met with the prime minister and other officials. Thaksin, whom the Thais want extradited to serve a two-year jail term for corruption, arrived the day before—his second trip to Cambodia in recent weeks—and met with Siwarak at Prey Sar.
His pardon was unprecedented in recent Cambodian judicial history, Son Chhay, a lawmaker for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said Monday.
What’s more, he said, the quick release, reportedly at the behest of a political party association with Thaksin, ran counter to earlier public remarks by Hun Sen, who has said prisoners should be incarcerated for at least two-thirds of their sentence before they can be pardoned.
“In principle, we want a court in our country to make a proper judgment,” Son Chhay said. “A criminal convicted must be prosecuted according to his wrongdoing and should not be used for political influence,” he said. “That is shameful to our court system.”
The government should look into injustices perpetrated against Cambodians in the court system, he said, such as those jailed for protesting alleged land theft or other issues.
“Our citizens who have been victimized by land violations and detained have proposed to His Majesty, the king, the same,” he said. “The government should give a green light and ask the king to grant them a pardon too.”
So much effort spent over a Thai national, he said, “we still think it’s not normal.”
Government officials say Hun Sen had the right to make a decision in Siwarak’s case. Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the decision was made in the national interest.
Chea Vannath, an independent political analyst, pointed to the five-year detention of two men widely thought innocent in the killing of a labor leader in 2004: Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun. Neither of the men was pardoned, despite a plea from the former king, Norodom Sihanouk.
With strong legal institutions, she said, enforcement of the law would be consistent. “But in [Siwarak’s] case, we see that it is far different from previous cases.”