Four senior officials for rights group Adhoc and a top election official, who have been imprisoned for six months over bribery charges, face an additional six months in provisional detention after court officials decided on Thursday to take additional time to investigate the case.
Critics say the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has had plenty of time to vet the case, however, and is compromising the officials’ rights to a fair and quick trial by intentionally lengthening the investigation period.
Adhoc’s head of monitoring Ny Sokha, his deputies Nay Vanda and Yi Soksan, and senior investigator Lim Mony were charged in May for allegedly bribing the mistress of CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha to deny the affair. Ny Chakrya, deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee, was at the same time charged as an accomplice to bribery.
Investigating Judge Theam Chan Piseth “decided to extend” the investigation on Thursday, deputy prosecutor Kuch Kimlong said, adding that he did not know the reasoning. Court spokesman Ly Sophana declined to comment.
According to Sam Sokong, the lawyer representing Mr. Chakrya, the judge provided two reasons.
“First, some witnesses have not come for questioning yet and were delayed,” he said. “Second, some witnesses already gave their testimonies, and they were not clear.”
But, Mr. Sokong said, the extension was unnecessary.
“During the six months of pretrial detention, the investigating judge did not try, and the court did not investigate according to the set time,” he said. “Six months of detention should be enough.”
Mr. Sokong said the legal rights of the five were being abused.
“If the investigating judge cannot find the evidence to inculpate them, the investigating judge has to use his discretion to drop the charges or acquit them of the charges,” he said.
Mr. Sokong conceded that the judge legally had 18 months to investigate the felony charges, but said this timeframe was unnecessary as “this case is not complicated.”
The lawyers for all five defendants plan to appeal the decision, he added.
The charges are believed to stem from $204 given to Khem Chandaraty, the alleged mistress of Mr. Sokha, while Adhoc was representing her during questioning over the case. Ms. Chandaraty, who worked at a barber shop frequented by Mr. Sokha, eventually admitted to the affair.
Human rights groups and activists launched a “Black Monday” campaign after the Adhoc officials and Mr. Chakrya were arrested, calling on supporters to wear all black and take to the streets in protest of their imprisonment. However, the government said the campaign amounted to an urban rebellion, and regularly arrested those taking part.
Though a small group of anti-eviction activists have continued to hold demonstrations on some Mondays, the groups who helped launch the campaign have retreated to online activism, launching a social media campaign around the hashtag #Freethe5KH.
Eang Vuthy, executive director of the NGO Equitable Cambodia, called on the courts to hold a trial or, at the very least, give a clear explanation of what was taking so long.
“The court has to justify that—why they have detained them for another six months—and provide a clear justification to the public,” he said. “Otherwise, people’s rights might be violated—the right to a fair trial; the right to be considered innocent until the judge rules in the case.”
As he was escorted from the courtroom, however, Mr. Vanda of Adhoc said the court’s decisions were inconsequential.
“Being released or not released is not too important,” he said. “The most important thing is going together to register to vote.”
“We would like to appeal to all Cambodian people both in the country and outside the country to get registered to vote and try their best to make positive change.”
(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)