A pessimistic King Norodom Sihanouk said Thursday agreement would never be reached on a pardon for deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Princess Boppha Devi, the prince’s elder sister, wrote to the King on Thursday requesting a pardon for her brother after the Phnom Penh Military Court sentenced him to 30 years in prison.
The King forwarded the request to the two prime ministers to gain approval for granting the amnesty. But in an interview with palace staff, the King predicted they would throw the decision back onto him or demand the prince recognize his guilt before they agree to the pardon.
“In either case I will make no decision. The royal pardon will not be agreed,” the King asserted.
The King also slammed a Japanese-sponsored peace plan aimed at returning the prince to participate in the forthcoming elections, saying it had done nothing but make the prince a “double criminal, which is an injustice to him.” Prince Ranariddh also was convicted March 4 on charges of illegally purchasing and transporting weapons.
Following the prince’s inevitable convictions, the plan proposed that a close relative of the prince could request a pardon, thus allowing him to run in the scheduled July election.
But, the King asserted, complications arising from the multimillion-dollar compensation package that the court ruled the prince must pay make it unlikely that he ever will be able to return to Cambodia.
“The famous ‘Japanese plan’ can only and will only fall through,” the King said.
“In effect, everything has already been planned out and done to completely prevent Prince Ranariddh from standing in the 1998 elections, because it still remains for him to pay astronomical sums [for] the ‘broken jars’ from July 5 and 6.”
“If he does not have enough money to pay the colossal price of all these ‘broken jars’ (broken by others), he will be sent to prison if he dares to return home,” the King said.
In addition to the prince’s prison term, the military court demanded a payment in excess of $56 million to compensate private companies, individuals, and the state, for losses arising from the July 5 and 6 fighting.
Justice Minister Chem Snguon affirmed after the prince’s trial that a royal pardon could not free the prince from liability for compensation demanded by the court.
The ruling makes it unlikely the prince can return to Cambodia without fear of being jailed, unless he pays the damages.
Imprisonment even under those circumstances, one lawyer noted, would still render him ineligible for the elections—a fact that has led many analysts to regard the compensation demand as a political trick to keep the prince out.
Outside the National Assembly Thursday, the justice minister reacted testily to suggestions that the government had orchestrated the claim for political purposes.
“Who says that? The court made its decision in accordance with the law,” he said.
Diplomats, however, reacted angrily Thursday to what they see as political games being played by the government.
“Hun Sen is behaving like a naughty boy doing whatever he wants,” one Asean diplomat said.
“There is a standard of international behavior that recognized leaders must observe, and if they are not ready to do anything other than put up obstacle after obstacle, then they don’t deserve full standing in the international community.”
Another international representative agreed Thursday that the government seems to be going out of its way to exclude the prince from the elections.
“It’s clear that the government, from day one, has not wanted Ranariddh to return. Every time it has been asked to remove a hurdle, it has put up two in its place,” he said.
“They may have found a real legal argument in the form of compensation to exclude him, but is that really the point? The Japanese plan proposed the trial take place to clear the way for the prince to return and participate actively in the polls, and the trial has not produced that result.”
Legal observers on Thursday, however, questioned the legality of the compensation package, noting that only a portion of the total damages appeared to arise from specific complaints filed with the court.
According to Military Court Judge Ney Thol, 40 million riel ($11,500) of the claim stems from a complaint filed by the families of men killed in a clandestine helicopter mission to Anlong Veng ordered by the prince. The air force also is seeking an unspecified amount to cover the cost of the lost helicopter, he said.
The rest of the money appears to have been calculated from complaints filed against the government after the fighting, rather than from a specific complaint. “The courts can’t just call for damages as a unilateral act,” said Ratha Panh, a Cambodian litigation lawyer.
“Even if the government files a complaint, there has to be a chain of causation,” she said, noting the difficulty of determining who could be deemed liable for each destructive act. “To what level is Ranariddh the cause? Who did the stealing and looting? It’s too indirect, even if you really believe he started it. The link of causation has to end somewhere.”
Kazuhiro Nakai, first secretary of the Japanese Embassy, said the Japanese “are in the process of examining the implications on the Cambodian election process.”
(Additional reporting by Kimsan Chantara, Chris Decherd and Lor Chandara)