In Cambodian Courts, Scales of Justice Are Tilted

An investigation into the February shooting of three female garment workers by the former governor of Bavet City, Chhouk Bundith, will be completed and sent to a prosecutor for review by the end of the week, a Svay Rieng Provincial Court official said yesterday.

Despite the severity of the crime—all three shooting victims were hospitalized and one suffered from a punctured lung—officials in Svay Rieng province say Mr. Bundith remains a free man and is often seen in public.

Mr. Bundith’s case, which has trundled through the courts for the past six months, would appear emblematic of a sting of recent cases that underline just how immune high-powered official are when they come before the politically-aligned legal system.

In April, three men from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit brutally beat four people in a Koh Kong hotel. They were charged and sentenced in July to three years in jail, but a few days later were quietly released from detention with little explanation.

Last week, The Anticorruption Unit (ACU) and Land Management Ministry said four ministry officials had been arrested on suspicion of graft. They were charged with corruption and detained, but released on bail on Wednesday after just five days behind bars.

And almost any week, police and military officers involved in off-duty shootings are dealt with by “administrative” means, their cases rarely, if ever, coming before the court.

For government’s critics, however, their experience with the law is a very different matter.

The owner of the independent Beehive Radio station Mam Sonando, who was arrested at his home last month on charges of spearheading a so-called secessionist movement in Kratie province, has spent the last four weeks in an overcrowded cell in Phnom Penh and has already been denied bail. The only evidence against Mr. Sonando is so-called witness statements.

“It’s a double standard that the weak and poor lose and the powerful and rich and well-connected can get away with it,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, an organization that offers legal assistance to the poor.

“This is exactly what I myself have seen; the difference of treatment. Many people see this, and it’s so obvious,” he said.

In the case of Mr. Bundith, it is still unclear whether he will stand trial for the shootings inside a special economic zone where workers from a factory making shoes for the German sports designer Puma where protesting for higher wages.

Those following the case say the amount of evidence against Mr. Bundith would, under normal circumstances, result in a quick and easy conviction – and certainly is detention ahead of trial.

“As a lawyer, I would say that the evidence and eye witness statements alone surely justify a form of pretrial detention and a sense of urgency to act,” said Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, a U.S.-based organization that works with unions internationally.

More than 20 witnesses have been questioned since the investigation began in March. Mr. Bundith was only charged with “unintentional injury” and was never detained.

Investigating Judge Pech Chhoeut said the investigation of Mr. Bundith would draw to a close by the end of the week.

“This week, I will make a notification that the investigation is finished, and I will send a case file to the prosecutor to review it further and a set a schedule for trial,” he said.

In June, judges, prosecutors and judicial officers from around the country met in Phnom Penh to review the successes and failings of the Code of Criminal Procedure.

The legal peers agreed that pretrial detention is being used excessively and that more suspects should be granted bail.

But the reality, according to Mr. Virak of CLEC, is that those who the government wants behind bars stay behind bars.

Mr. Sonando’s lawyer, Sok Sam Oeun, has said there is no reason his client should not have been be granted bail as he willingly returned to Cambodia from the U.S. to participate in the investigation.

Shiwei Ye, Asean representative at the International Federation for Human Rights, said pretrial detention should be the exception rather than the rule, as per international standards, but that it only appears to be the case for those with power.

“Records have shown that when it comes to pretrial detention, there appears to be a double-standard by which those with connection to the rich and powerful are less likely to be kept in prolonged pretrial detention,” he said in an email.

“[T]he use of pretrial detention in Cambodia is inconsistent with international standards; rather, it is becoming a part of the government’s arsenal to punish outspoken government critics and human rights defenders for their legitimate and peaceful activities.”

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, denied that the rich and powerful were given favorable treatment by the court system.

“We have a number of people connected to the government and they’re still in jail,” he said, referring to members of Senate President Chea Sim’s inner circle, and former Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief Moek Dara.

“I wish everyone would monitor the judges. Don’t brand the system, don’t brand the government…. Don’t put everything in one basket,” he said.

Rights workers, however, say that the justice system is not blind in Cambodia.

“It is stated in the Cambodian Constitution that everybody, whether rich or poor, should be equally treated before the law,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho.

(Additional reporting by Dene-Hern Chen and Kuch Naren)

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