Human Rights Watch on Friday called on the courts to drop all charges against a staff member for the rights group Licadho, who the group says has been unjustly charged with incitement.
Leang Sokchouen lost an appeal Thursday and is facing a two-year prison sentence for allegedly distributing anti-government leaflets. Licadho has maintained his innocence, while Human Rights Watch in a statement derided the “politicization and incompetence of Cambodia’s courts.”
The US-based rights group said the charges against Leang Sokchouen had changed during appeal to incitement under the new penal code, which was not in effect at the time of his alleged offense in January 2010.
“Sokchouen should never have been charged in the first place, but to have the charges changed on appeal with no opportunity to challenge them sets a new standard for arbitrariness. The government should immediately drop the charges and release him.”
Leang Sokchoeun is accused of distributing anti-government leaflets over the January 7 national holiday, which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party celebrates to mark the ouster of the Khmer Rouge, but which critics say also marked the beginning of a 10-year Vietnamese occupation.
Licadho maintains he was arrested under an erroneous warrant by police in Takeo province. Human Rights Watch said his trial was “marked by numerous procedural flaws as well as violations of fair trial provisions in Cambodian and international law.”
“The prosecution did not present any in-court witness statements or credible evidence,” the statement said. “The trial judge ignored compelling testimony raised in Sokchouen’s defense.”
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said the administration has no power to interfere with affairs of the court. The case is at the discretion of the judge, he said.
“If the judge’s decision is not judicial, we must complain to that judge,” he said.
Human Rights Watch also “expressed concern about the conditions for human rights workers and organizations in Cambodia,” including an impending law to regulate NGOs that many groups say will stymie development.
“One of the few enduring gains from the massive United Nations peacekeeping mission 20 years ago was a vibrant civil society,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
“With the imprisonment of a human rights activist on phony charges and the impending passage of a law aimed at giving the government the power to shut down civil society groups arbitrarily, those gains are under threat. Cambodia’s international donors need to press Hun Sen and his government to change course.”
Phay Siphan called the statement an attack on the government and an attempt to discredit it, without “aiming to help find justice for the accused or convicted person.”
“Human Rights Watch should change its attitude for Cambodia,” he said, “This statement is an activity of interference that in our view should not happen.”
The US Embassy also expressed disappointment in the Leang Sokchouen case.
“The United States has long supported the development of free expression and freedom of speech in Cambodia as a fundamental tenet of a democratic system of governance,” the statement said. “These rights are protected in the Cambodian constitution as well as international human rights agreements to which Cambodia is party. We hope that the Royal Government of Cambodia will seriously consider the negative effect that the use of criminal prosecutions in response to the expression of political opinions can have on this right.”