Days after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the release of two community leaders imprisoned over a land dispute, prosecutors and court directors from across the country will meet in Phnom Penh on Friday to discuss the use of pre-trial detention against defendants in such disputes.
“I want to invite all provincial court directors and chief prosecutors from all provinces regarding relevant cases to attend a meeting about pre-trial detention in land dispute cases on Friday,” Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
The statement does not go into detail about what will be discussed, though it comes after the swift release of two land activists from the Kompong Speu provincial prison on Monday night, about an hour after Prime Minister Hun Sen made a request on Facebook for their freedom.
Provincial chief prosecutor Keo Sothea declined to comment on either the release or the upcoming meeting.
The excessive use of pre-trial detention has long been a pressing issue for human rights defenders. Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Mr. Hun Sen’s request exemplified a pervasive lack of judicial integrity.
“This process should not involve the government giving direct orders to the judiciary,” she said. “A genuine review of the widespread and abusive use of pre-trial detention in cases involving environmental and land rights activists is badly needed.”
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights attorney, said that while the Code of the Criminal Procedure stipulated that only crimes that carried a sentence of more than a year could result in pre-trial detention, charges were often exaggerated.
“The people are always charged on higher cimes so it’s over one year and they can be put in jail. They don’t care about the facts,” he said, adding that the power imbalance in many land dispute cases further stacked the deck.
“Especially if the one side is from a big company or high-ranking official and one side is the people,” he said. “What will the judge think? They’re scared.”