Amnesty International today accused the ruling CPP of using its grip on the judiciary to systematically harass and intimidate civil society and urged the government to drop cases against opposition activists and human rights defenders.
In response, a government spokesman branded the global rights group the “enemy of the government,” and maintained that jailed members of civil society were imprisoned for breaking the law.
Released this morning, Amnesty’s “Courts of Injustice” report criticizes the government over a wide range of cases, including legal assault on prominent activist Tep Vanny, the current and former rights workers dubbed the Adhoc 5, and opposition CNRP officials convicted of leading an “insurrection” in 2014.
“Since the last general election in July 2013, the Cambodian criminal justice system seems to have been systematically targeting human rights defenders [HRDs] and political opposition activists,” the report states.
Amnesty estimates there are at least 27 political prisoners in Cambodia, while local rights group Licadho puts the current number at 25.
“HRDs and political opposition activists are targeted by the executive and ruling party through the criminal justice system on the basis of their political beliefs, activities, however peaceful, and/or due to their status as HRDs,” it adds.
The case against the Adhoc 5—four officers from the rights group and an election official who have been jailed for more than a year for their alleged involvement in attempting to bribe a mistress of opposition leader Kem Sokha to lie about an affair—is “clearly politically motivated,” the report says.
“The Five were discriminated against on the basis of their status as HRDs,” the report states.
“There is a reliable body of information supporting the conclusion that they were arrested to deter ADHOC and its staff from carrying out their functions as HRDs and from exercising their rights and freedoms,” it adds
The report also contends there is no basis for imprisoning opposition officials and activists for between seven and 20 years for their role in a demonstration at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park in July 2014 that turned violent when CNRP supporters clashed with district security guards.
“There is no evidence that the opposition planned violence ahead of the 15 July 2014 event; to the contrary, there is substantial evidence that CNRP parliamentarians in attendance repeatedly told their supporters to conduct themselves peacefully and videos available online indicate that the violence that did take place was in fact initiated by security forces,” the report states.
The convictions were not backed up in court, the rights group argues, citing the fact that none of the 38 security guards called as witnesses were able to identify any of the defendants as having engaged in violence.
The court’s treatment of female activists from Phnom Penh’s eviction-embattled Boeng Kak neighborhood is also featured in the report, which focuses on the area’s most prominent protester, Tep Vanny, who was jailed once again last year in what has widely been derided as a politically motivated effort to muzzle the country’s best known dissident.
“Members of the community have faced just about every trick in Cambodia’s harassment playbook,” the report states.
“The cases against Vanny are important for the current discussion as they highlight the lengths to which the authorities will go to use, bend and break the rules of criminal procedure to imprison activists and underscore the unwillingness or inability of the courts’ to uphold the internationally protected fair trial rights of HRDs,” it adds.
The report ends with nine recommendations to the government, including a call for greater respect for the independence of the judiciary; a plea to stop using the courts to target its critics; and an argument for the immediate termination of all cases against human rights defenders and peaceful political opposition activists.
Contacted by telephone, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan slammed the rights group and claimed it was biased against the government.
“It is nothing strange, it [Amnesty International] is the enemy of the government,” Mr. Eysan said. “If you don’t commit any aggravated offenses, there would not be any charges. The court is not biased if you don’t violate the law.”