Political Prisoners—a Question of Definition

U.S. President Barack Obama wants them freed. Prime Minister Hun Sen says there are none. And while human rights groups say there are many, they cannot agree on just how to define these “political prisoners,” let alone how many there might be in Cambodia.

The answer does matter, though.

Mr. Obama warned during his recent visit to Phnom Penh that the future of U.S.-Cambodian relations depended on their release but highlighted only one case, that of imprisoned radio station owner and frequent government critic Mam Sonando.

The U.N. human rights office in Phnom Penh said it did not know how many political prisoners Cambodia had and was not keeping track. The U.N.’s human rights envoy to the country, Surya Subedi, said he needed some time to define what a political prisoner was in the Cambodian context.

The only organization apparently not struggling with the issue is local human rights group Licadho.

Among the 20 of the 26 Cambodian jails it monitors, Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said 13 detainees currently fit its definition of political prisoner: anyone persecuted unjustly for promoting and protecting the human rights of their community or other groups using non-violence.

Though each of the 13 were charged or convicted for a nominal crime, from fraud to attempted murder, Ms. Pilorge believes that all but one, Mr. Sonando, were targeted for actively—but peacefully—opposing various land evictions.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, said criminal prosecutions made political cases hard to discern.

“It’s very hard because sometimes the [criminal] conviction is suspicious,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.

A definition is even harder still when cases are coupled with an element of organized violence, Mr. Sam Oeun said, noting the Cambodian Freedom Fighters. Several members were convicted of staging a violent attack on government buildings and security forces in 2000.

“The Cambodian Freedom Fighters, though it is a crime, it is still political,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.

Because some political prisoners can be involved in acts of violence, some groups prefer the phrase “prisoner of conscience.”

Amnesty International, which coined the phrase, defines a prisoner of conscience as “someone jailed because of her/his political, religious or other conscientiously held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status, provided they have neither used nor advocated violence.”

Though Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher, Rupert Abbott, said he could not say how many such prisoners existed in Cambodia, some of the people on Licadho’s list were candidates.

“Particularly in the context of the land crisis in Cambodia—where forced evictions, land disputes and land grabbing have affected thousands of people—human rights defenders and peaceful protesters face harassment, increasing violence, legal action and imprisonment,” he said. “Amnesty International would define some of those imprisoned as [prisoners of conscience].”

Mr. Abbott also included the 13 women arrested in May while peacefully protesting against a Phnom Penh land eviction and convicted that same month on charges of inciting rebellion and illegally occupying land after a summary trial. Sentenced to two-and-a-half years each, the women have since been released but remain convicted.

Rights workers also included those convicted in recent years for distributing anti-government leaflets, usually on grounds of incitement. In 2010, a World Food Program employee was convicted of incitement for printing out pages from the website of K.I. [Khmer Intelligence] Media and sentenced to six months in prison.

But none of these cases add up to a consensus on the definition of political prisoner or prisoner of conscience.

Even in Burma, where America very publicly made the release of political prisoners a key condition for lifting sanctions on the country, the U.S. is still trying to figure out what the phrase should mean.

Just last month, the U.S. government’s Congressional Research Service (CRS) said a definition was in the works.

“The State Department is actively discussing the political prisoner issue—including the definition of political prisoners—with the Burmese government, opposition parties and representatives of some ethnic groups,” the CRS said in a briefing paper.

Borrowing figures from the Burmese government and NGOs, the CRS said the government of Burmese President Thein Sein  had nonetheless released hundreds of political prisoners over the past year and that anywhere from 128 to 914 remained.

Faced with the definition dilemma, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, offered his own, two-pronged description of a prisoner of conscience.

By Mr. Quintana’s definition, a prisoner of conscience is anyone prosecuted for breaking laws that impede “reasonable enjoyment of freedom of expression, opinion, peaceful assembly or association” and who is denied access to a court or only has access to a court that lacks independence or denies due process.

In past reports, Cambodia’s U.N. envoy Mr. Subedi has described an abjectly corrupt court system here.

“Corruption seems to be widespread at all levels in the judiciary,” he said in a 2010 report. “Because the laws needed to protect the judges are not there, the judges are treated as civil servants and seem to rely on patronage and political protection rather than on the laws for the security of their jobs. This has resulted in individual judges and prosecutors compromising their independence.”

Like other local groups in Cambodia, the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), a legal aid NGO, has neither a definition for political prisoners nor a number. But CLEC program manager Houn Chundy said despite what the government claimed, there was no doubt Cambodia had them.

For all the prime minister’s denials, he said, “people, the public, see that they are politically related.”

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