Six More Months

Politically motivated. Arbitrary. An affront to human rights. The yearlong detention without trial of the Adhoc 5—a moniker given to four rights workers and an election official caught up in an opposition leader’s alleged affair—has been called all of these things.

Today, a judge is expected to lengthen the detention by another six months, purportedly to continue the investigation against the five, even though, in the past six months of the ongoing probe, Adhoc says only one witness has been called.

Critics around the world—from the U.N. to a group of Asean parliamentarians—have decried the detention and called for their release. Closer to home, the group’s imprisonment spawned a yearlong Black Monday campaign in which lands rights activists and evictees donned T-shirts, scrawled posters and shouted slogans.

The government’s response to the ongoing condemnation?

That every day of the detention, every denied appeal, every banned prison visit has been in accordance with the law.

Adhoc is Cambodia’s oldest human rights organization and the four detainees are the group’s head of monitoring Ny Sokha, his deputies Nay Vanda and Yi Soksan and senior investigator Lim Mony.

They were initially detained after questioning on April 28 last year and charged in May for allegedly bribing the alleged mistress of then-deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha to deny an affair. Ny Chakrya, deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee (NEC) and a former Adhoc employee, was accused of being an accomplice.

Government officials have said the five were not jailed for “political reasons,” but for violating the law. And on Wednesday, a Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman said the presiding judge in the case intended to continue their detention “to fulfill the process of additional questioning.”

However, Wan-Hea Lee, country representative of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the Adhoc case demonstrates “deep flaws in the judicial system” and “does nothing to improve public confidence in the Cambodian courts.”

“Pre-trial detainees are in effect being punished before their guilt is established in court,” Ms. Lee said in an email on Tuesday. “This violates human rights on many levels, not least the presumption of innocence.”

Other critics say the case is emblematic of the injustice regularly dispensed by the nation’s courts, including disregard for the right to a fair trial and a failure to justify continued detention without a trial.

In practice, the courts don’t need any evidence to justify longer provisional detention, Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights attorney, said on Monday.

“They just say that they want to conduct more investigation,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.

Generally, he said, “the first question of the judge is whether you have any evidence to prove you’re innocent.”

The Adhoc detainees say they were providing legal services to a witness, manicurist Khom Chandaraty, who was at first being helped by Adhoc before later alleging in court that the organization’s officers and Mr. Chakrya attempted to persuade her to keep an alleged affair with Mr. Sokha a secret.

She has not been seen in public for months.Prior to today’s scheduled hearing, Investigating Judge Theam Chan Piseth told court spokesman Y Rin on Monday that the prisoners’ detention would be extended, Mr. Rin said on Wednesday.

Another six months in jail to continue the court’s investigation is allowed by law.

The court is “not closing the investigation yet,” Mr. Rin said.

Lawyers for the five said on Wednesday that they had received summonses to appear in court today for a hearing about the detention extension.

Sam Sokong, Mr. Chakrya’s attorney, said he and the other defense attorneys would appeal if the detention was lengthened.

An extension would violate “the principle of receiving a quick trial,” he said.

While extended provisional detention is allowed when the court needs more time to question witnesses, Lor Chunthy, attorney for the four Adhoc employees, said the court had done little for five or six months.

“If they extend the investigation, there should be action in the investigation,” he said. “If we have not seen any investigation, what is the extension for?”

Adhoc spokesman Sam Chankea said prolonged detention before a trial was not unheard of but this case was different—and “inappropriate.”

“The extension was just their aim to mistreat the Adhoc officers” as well as send a warning to others, Mr. Chankea said.

Mr. Sokha, the current opposition leader, appeared to be the main target of the web of prosecutions that followed the release of sexually charged audio recordings on Facebook early last year. They were supposedly of conversations between Mr. Sokha and Ms. Chandaraty, and the voices on the tapes can be heard discussing gifts, public figures and sex.

The man’s promise of gifts was turned into a “prostitution” case, while their discussion of a political activist became a defamation suit. Armed police attempted to arrest Mr. Sokha when he refused to appear in court over the accusations, but he evaded authorities by going into hiding at party headquarters, surrounded by supporters, for more than six months.

In December, he was granted a surprise pardon at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and it appeared the detention of the Adhoc 5 was also nearing an end.

The CNRP said that month the five prisoners should be free by the end of the year, and party officials said Mr. Hun Sen would request a royal pardon for the five defendants who remained in prison once their trial finished.

Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy claimed in January that Mr. Sokha’s pardon was arranged as a ploy by Mr. Hun Sen to divide the opposition. The prime minister had asked Mr. Sokha to take a public stance against Mr. Rainsy or condemn his regular criticism of the government, he said.

“Kem Sokha refused, and he sent a message to Kem Sokha saying if you don’t do what I ask, I will do nothing for the release of those you are referring to,” Mr. Rainsy said at the time from Paris, where he lives in exile.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan denied at the time that Mr. Hun Sen would attempt to use the prisoners as leverage to divide the opposition.

On Wednesday, Mr. Eysan blamed repeated appeals for bail by the accused’s defense attorneys for the prolonged court investigation.

“Each [complaint] took months,” he said. “[They] have to condemn the lawyers that keep appealing.”

The government insists they are just following legal procedure.

In an 11-page government statement released earlier this month, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said the five “were charged in accordance with the law.”

“The ‘political prisoners’ [identified by rights NGO Licadho] are not jailed for political reasons but for violation of the law. Political and human rights activists are not above the law,” the statement says.

However, international observers and rights advocates say it’s the courts that are operating extrajudicially.

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said last year that the five “have been discriminated against based on their status as human rights defenders, and in violation of their right to equality before the law and equal protection of the law” under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The prolonged detention of the four Adhoc officers and Mr. Chakrya violates their liberty, and the court has failed to offer sufficient reasons for their ongoing imprisonment, said Duch Piseth, advocacy director for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, this week.

“We believe that our judiciary and the court is not fully independent and is a political tool to silence government critics,” he said.

After a year without a trial, the court should try the case, Mr. Piseth said.

“If they are not found guilty, get them released,” he said.

Update (April 27, 2017, 4:30 p.m.): The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday lengthened the detention by six months of five former and current human rights workers who have been jailed without trial for a year as of Friday, Lor Chunthy, the Adhoc staffers’ attorney, said. Defense attorneys for the five prisoners said they would appeal the continued detention.

sony@cambodiadaily.com, surrusco@cambodiadaily.com

© 2017, Ouch Sony. All rights reserved.