Hun Sen Decides When ‘Rule of Law’ Applies

Arrest an activist. Slap them with a prison sentence far longer than many given to convicted murderers, rapists or drug traffickers. Then let them languish behind bars while pursuing concessions from the opposition.

—News Analysis—

The open threat of corrupt courts being used against government critics should silence the most skittish among them. If there are any calls to release the prisoners, flatly deny control of the courts and cite “the rule of law.”

CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha during an interview at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh last month (Reuters/Pring Samrang)
CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha during an interview at the party’s headquarters in Phnom Penh last month (Reuters/Pring Samrang)

The use of such double messages—scaring political opponents with jail time while maintaining a position of strict constitutionalism when it comes to their release—has worked wonders for the CPP over the years, often leaving the opposition lame.

Yet rarely have the two conflicting sides been expressed more clearly than last week, when Prime Minister Hun Sen used a speech to both threaten deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha with life in prison and to deny any influence in the case.

Mr. Sokha has been hiding inside the CNRP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh since armed police tried to arrest him there on May 26 as part of the government’s monthslong prosecution of an alleged extramarital affair.

“This scoundrel is scared and does not dare to come downstairs because he is scared of being arrested, but instead he says that Hun Sen is scared,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I want to send the message that you will be imprisoned forever. Don’t be aggressive, prisoner.”

Only a few breaths later, Mr. Hun Sen was warning against those who got the idea that he was driving the prosecution against his chief opponent in the country.

“The E.U. always receives unclear information,” Mr. Hun Sen said, singling the E.U. out for its recent statement, which strongly suggested that the case against Mr. Sokha was a political attack on the opposition.

“Every diplomat and person, I clarify again: Do not take a personal issue to become a political issue between a party and a party,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

Mr. Hun Sen also said last month that there could not be any talks between the CPP and the CNRP about Mr. Sokha’s predicament “because if there are negotiations it will influence the court processes,” both in Mr. Sokha’s case and those of the other imprisoned opposition figures.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the sheer number of CPP critics in prison—more than 20 have been jailed over the past year, including four officers for rights group Adhoc and a senior official in the National Election Committee (NEC)—clearly showed the CPP’s hand.

“The CPP always says the courts are alone, but the whole country and the whole world knows they are under [the] control of the ruling party,” Mr. Sovann said.

“Senators and [members of parliament] and activists are in jail, as well as human rights officials, NGO representatives, and the deputy secretary-general of the NEC. This is a crackdown on democracy activists. It is political.”

Indeed, the E.U. mission in Phnom Penh could have been forgiven for believing that the CPP itself engineered the case against those opposition activists already in prison—given that a high-ranking government official told them exactly that just that two months prior.

Speaking at the 9th E.U.-Cambodia Joint Committee meeting in Phnom Penh on May 4, Ouch Borith, a secretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry, told E.U. diplomats that the CPP had “no choice” but to arrest its critics.

“Our unique history made ‘peace and stability’ the core value to be preserved at all cost,” Mr. Borith said before slamming the CNRP for their “unethical and provocative behaviors and incitements” against the CPP, according to a transcript of his speech.

“It is with deep regret that CNRP persistently violated the terms of ‘Culture of Dialogue’…thus leaving CPP no choice but to resort to legal settlements in order to enhance the rule of law in Cambodia,” he said.

The CPP’s apparent sway over the courts was also on display in July 2014, when seven CNRP lawmakers were suddenly released from jail hours after opposition leader Sam Rainsy inked a deal with Mr. Hun Sen ending an almost yearlong boycott of parliament.

Kem Ley, head of the “Khmer for Khmer” grassroots political advocacy group, said it was clear that Mr. Hun Sen was happy for people to understand he was ordering the courts to arrest his opponents, even while insisting he had no such power.

“He does not care about that,” Mr. Ley said of the chance people could see Mr. Hun Sen’s influence behind arrests. “Everybody knows it. Even the children know everything is in the hands of the strongman.”

“It is the prime minister who provides the evidence that the government interferes in the judiciary. His words before judgments, before arrests and before trials, or this threat to send someone to jail for life—this is the great evidence of interference,” he said.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, one of the CPP’s biggest evangelists for “the rule of law,” said it was not conflicting for Mr. Hun Sen to threaten Mr. Sokha with life imprisonment and claim to have no power over his case in the same breathe.

“The opposition are biased and always look for things like that,” Mr. Siphan said, adding there was nothing wrong with the prime minister informing Mr. Sokha of the consequences of his criminal actions.

“If they don’t appear in the court, or respect the court, they will be in jail forever. But the judges have their discretion, and it’s not because the prime minister says so,” he said.

“Any judge that abuses the law under someone’s pressure, they would be in trouble too.”

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