Court Drops Charge Against Prominent Human Rights Worker

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has dropped its case—relating to an alleged secessionist movement in Kratie province—against prominent human rights worker Chan Soveth, his lawyer said Friday. 

Lawyer Sam Sokong said he had received a letter from investigating Judge Chhe Virak on Thursday explaining that prosecutors had decided to drop their charge of “aiding a perpetrator” against Mr. Soveth, a senior investigator for rights group Adhoc.

Judge Virak confirmed that the court had dropped the charge but declined to say why.

The court had refused for months to explain the source of the August 7 charge against Mr. Soveth. But public comments made by Prime Minister Hun Sen suggested that he was being accused of helping one of the alleged secessionists in Kratie province escape from authorities ahead of a massive police raid on Broma village. During the raid, security forces shot dead a 14-year-old girl, but authorities chose not to investigate the killing calling it an “accident.”

The court finally released documents to Mr. Soveth’s defense team confirming the charge was indeed connected to the alleged secession. At his questioning in December, Mr. Soveth told the court that he had furnished the man with shelter and money for food but had no intention of helping him evade arrest.

Mr. Soveth on Friday applauded the court’s decision but regretted that others such as anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha and independent radio station owner Mam Sonando—both believed by rights groups to have been wrongly convicted—were still in jail.

“All the charges against Ms. Bopha and Mam Sonando…should be handled the same as mine and they should have been released from prison to prove the independence of the court system in Cambodia,” he said.

Mr. Sonando was convicted of fomenting the alleged secessionist movement from which Mr. Soveth’s own case stemmed on October 1 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. On a visit here to attend a regional forum in November, U.S. President Barack Obama labeled Mr. Sonando a political prisoner and urged Mr. Hun Sen to release him.

Mr. Sonando remains behind bars indicating, Mr. Soveth said, that the charges the courts have dropped against him and a handful of other human rights workers and journalists in recent months have been largely for show and are little proof that the justice system is improving.

“The arrest and detention of land rights activists in [the Phnom Penh neighborhood of] Boeng Kak and the imprisonment of Mr. Mam Sonando have become a hot issue among the international community,” he said.

“So, the courts have only dropped the charges against Adhoc’s rights workers, including me, to show the international community that restrictions on us are decreasing.”

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