PHNOM PENH, WASHINGTON DC - In sending two men to jail Thursday who are likely innocent of their crimes, the Cambodian courts have added to a string of decisions that could lead to increased instability and dictatorial oppression, local and international observers said Friday.
Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun were remanded to 20-year prison sentences by the Appeals Court on Thursday, following their release on the order of retrial in 2009. Both men are widely considered innocent in the killing of labor activist Chea Vichea, who was shot dead in broad daylight outside a Phnom Penh news kiosk in February 2004.
“No one can seriously believe that they are guilty,” said Rich Garella, producer of “Who Killed Chea Vichea,” a film that examines the mishandling of the case. “There hasn’t been a shred of evidence presented against them. It’s heartbreaking, despicable, disgusting.”
The decision Thursday came months ahead of national elections and coincided with the jailing of two housing activists in Phnom Penh, who received three years each for allegedly inciting violence in a demonstration. It also adds to the growing number of high-profile prisoners in Cambodian jails, including Mam Sonando, the owner of Beehive Radio, which carries programming from the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and other international and independent entities. Meanwhile, a powerful governor in Svay Rieng province, Chhouk Bandith, has seen a case dropped against him after he allegedly fired into a crowd of demonstrators in February.
“The Cambodian government has no shame in using the courts as an arm of oppression,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of protecting rights, Cambodia’s judiciary is being used to suppress dissent and undermine justice.”
Garella said more powerful political interests were at work in the Appeals Court decision.
“In ordering the re-imprisonment of these two men, Hun Sen is being very purposeful,” he said. “He is showing that he can do anything in Cambodia. He is showing diplomats, opposition politicians and the public in general that he can and will imprison even unimportant regular people. It's not just the influential who must fear him. It’s everybody. Hun Sen is being quite open about his position as dictator.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan told VOA Khmer Friday the ruling was “a totally independent decision of justice” and that the administration of Hun Sen had no hand in it. “They judged it by their own view,” he said, adding that claims of political influence over the court are “exaggerated.”
Still, the string of recent court decisions that seem to put dissenters in jail and leave the powerful out has created renewed concern that the rights of ordinary Cambodians are shrinking, potentially leading to more political strife.
Local political observers said Friday they worry the ongoing decisions of the court to jail dissidents, journalists and men like Born Samnang and Sok Samoeun could increase instability in the country.
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said such treatment of ordinary citizens by powerful interests creates an environment that “could degenerate into resistance.”
“It’s an imbalance of justice,” said Lao Monghay, an independent political analyst. “Ordinary people are easy to put in jail.”
Lao Monghay pointed to testimony at the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal of former regime leader Nuon Chea, who said the insurgent movement that ultimately overthrew the government arose in opposition to the regime of Lon Nol, which was “oppressive, unjust and mocked ordinary people.” More recently, citizens of oppressive Middle Eastern countries created the Arab Spring, he said, whose revolutions are still being felt across the region.
“If injustice continues, it will be a danger for society,” said Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Cambodian National Rescue Party, which aims to contest the ruling party in the national elections in July.
Phay Siphan said the government believes there is “no reason” to fear unrest from the court rulings.
Chea Mony, the brother of Chea Vichea and a labor activist himself, said the courts had failed to find justice for his family.
“The courts have skilled professionals, but they lack courage and justice,” he said. “Most people in Cambodian society face injustice. And in recent times, people have suffered completely because of the court system.”
Adams of Human Rights Watch said that is no accident.
“It is difficult at this point for anyone to have any faith in Cambodia’s justice system,” he said. “Cambodia’s courts today are little more than an extension of Hun Sen and his ruling party.”