The Committee for Free and Fair Elections said Wednesday that the courts are being used as a political battleground, adding that Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s sentencing Tuesday has negatively affected the climate ahead of April’s commune elections.
During a press conference at their Phnom Penh offices, Comfrel officials urged politicians to settle their differences outside the court.
“We plea for the winners not to mistreat the losers through court,” said Thun Saray, first representative of Comfrel and president of local rights group Adhoc.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday sentenced Prince Norodom Ranariddh in absentia to 18 months in prison and ordered him to pay $150,000 in compensation for selling the Funcinpec’s headquarters.
Electoral fairness has been compromised by the case, Comfrel said in a statement. “The lawsuit and the sentence of the prince in prison with the prime minister’s influence has become a political issue preventing the Norodom Ranariddh Party’s president from involvement in the upcoming election campaign,” the committee wrote.
On Saturday, Hun Sen announced that he would not request a pardon for the prince if he was sentenced, and would allow him to remain in jail.
Koul Panha, Comfrel executive director, said he had no way of saying whether Hun Sen had intended to interfere in the case. “[But] I see a pattern…. The court is influenced by the powerful,” he said by telephone.
Comfrel also said it was concerned that violence will increase during the official election campaign period, which begins Friday.
There have so far been fewer killings and reports of intimidation during the run-up to next month’s election than there were ahead of commune elections in 2002, Comfrel said. However, killings of party members have increased since early January, Comfrel added.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith denied that the government pressured the courts to convict Prince Ranariddh.
“If we could influence the court, maybe we would ask to suspend [his trial] until after the election,” he said. Just because killings happen prior to an election, it doesn’t mean they are politically motivated, he added. “You have violence every day,” Khieu Kanharith said. “One killing doesn’t mean you can intimidate 7 million [voters].”