>Misuse of courts mars Cambodian election

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By LAO MONG HAY

Column: Rule by Fear
Published: May 07, 2008

HONG KONG, China, The courts mar the election in Cambodia

Cambodia will hold its next general election on July 27. According to the electoral law, campaigning will not begin until 30 days prior to the polls. Yet leaders of major political parties seem to have already started campaigning, with speeches attacking one another to score points and win votes. As in previous elections, party signs, especially those of non-ruling parties, have been damaged or destroyed, and non-ruling party activists have received threats and intimidation, or have even been killed.
There are now concerns that two court cases involving the leaders of two opposition parties will create more serious trouble, marring the whole electoral process. The first and latest one is a criminal lawsuit against Sam Rainsy, leader of the self-named Sam Rainsy Party, a more established opposition party, for defamation and disinformation against Hor Nam Hong, deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. This minister is also a leading member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
Hor Nam Hong filed this lawsuit on April 22 at the court of Phnom Penh, after Sam Rainsy made a public speech that Hor alleges defamed him. On April 17, at a ceremony to commemorate the seizure of power by the Khmer Rouge and the beginning of their massacres of the Cambodian people on that day in 1975, Sam made a speech in which he said, without naming any names, that two ministers of the current government had been Khmer Rouge cadres. He mentioned that one minister, the senior minister for economics and finance, had been Khmer Rouge Leader Pol Pot’s secretary and translator, and the other minister, the deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, had been chief of the Khmer Rouge prison at Boeung Trabek in Phnom Penh.
The court has acted promptly on this lawsuit and has summoned Sam to appear before it on May 22 — while it has not acted with the same promptness on cases of violence against opposition parties and their activists. This has prompted further doubts about not only this particular court’s but also all Cambodian courts’ lack of independence and impartiality. If convicted, Sam could be sentenced to between six months and three years in prison for disinformation, and also fined for each count. Any such imprisonment would cripple his party, which is the second largest after the CPP.
The other court case is an on-going one and involves Prince Norodom Ranariddh, former leader of the FUNCINPEC party, CPP’s current coalition partner in the government, and leader of a newly formed party, also self-named the Norodom Ranariddh Party. His former party has filed a criminal lawsuit against him for breach of trust in the handling, while he was leader of that party, of the sale of the party’s land when he was alleged to have misappropriated the proceeds from it.
Fearing a negative outcome, Ranariddh has fled the country and is now living in exile in Malaysia. In March 2007 the Court of First Instance in Phnom Penh tried him in absentia, and as widely expected, he was sentenced to 18 months in prison and ordered to pay damages to FUNCINPEC. He appealed this court ruling, but in October the Court of Appeal ruled against his appeal. He then appealed the ruling of the Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court. This Supreme Court has now started its proceedings, and it is expected that his appeal would be heard sometime in July, around the time of the election. Ranariddh cannot return to Cambodia to directly lead his party and its electoral campaign lest he is arrested and put in jail.
It is widely known that courts in Cambodia are politically controlled and almost all judges and prosecutors belong to the CPP, the ruling party. The president of the Supreme Court, or chief justice, is a member of the party’s standing and central committees. As a local human rights group called LICADHO put it in its report, “Human Rights in Cambodia: The Charade of Justice,” published in December 2007, a primary function of the courts in Cambodia is “to persecute political opponents and other critics of the government.” Prof. Yash Ghai, the U.N. special envoy for human rights in Cambodia, totally agreed with this assessment in a report which he presented to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March 2008.
Sam Rainsy is Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-time political opponent, and the Sam Rainsy Party is the major contender against Hun Sen’s CPP. Nordom Ranariddh and Hun Sen have had a love-hate relationship, but over the last several years the two have fallen out and Hun Sen has made continuous efforts to marginalize this prince from Cambodian politics.
It seems that the courts are again being used to cripple political opponents. It is hard for both Sam Rainsy and Norodom Ranariddh to expect any prompt or fair trial, so they might win their cases and freely and fully lead their respective parties to compete in the election. This use of courts as instruments of political oppression could mar the whole of the electoral process. It could impair the fairness of the forthcoming election and undermine the legitimacy of the new government.

(Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)
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