When Kang Bun Heang was arrested for allegedly attempting to assassinate the prime minister, military police came to his home in the middle of the night, ransacked the place and left his then-pregnant wife with neither an explanation nor an arrest warrant, according to rights workers.
Now, the former traditional doctor sits in the same military prison as Ta Mok, the most notorious military commander of the brutal Khmer Rouge movement.
There, Kang Bun Heang has had very little access to the outside world: a few visits by an appointed lawyer who for years worked at the military court, and a brief encounter with his wife and his new baby.
While his alleged crime is a serious one, his case has raised concerns by high-profile rights specialists over why a civilian would be sent through a system reserved for members of the military who commit military crimes.
After a recent visit here, the UN secretary-general’s special human rights envoy, Thomas Hammarberg, took Kang Bun Heang’s case before the UN General Assembly.
“Two political activists were wrongfully put in military jail and remain there today,” Hammarberg told the assembly during a speech last week in New York.
Kang Bun Heang and fellow Sam Rainsy Party member Mong Navuth were arrested in September and are being investigated for links to a B-40 rocket attack on a 1998 motorcade that included Prime Minister Hun Sen and other politicians.
Although the case is still being investigated, local rights groups question whether a court that allows so little outside access and last year convicted Prince Norodom Ranariddh and his allies for their activities during the July 1997 factional fighting is capable of meting out a fair verdict.
“The law is very clear on who goes to military court and who does not,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project. “But the government thinks it can interpret it however they want.”
The Untac legal code clearly states a military offense involves “military personnel…or concerns discipline within the armed forces or harm to military property.”
Moreover, the Law on Organization and Activities of Courts says the military court only has jurisdiction over military crimes committed by military personnel. If a member of the army commits a “civilian” crime like robbery or assault, he is to be tried by civilian court, the law states.
In the highly charged cases of Kang Bun Heang and Mong Navuth, their party has alleged that forcing them into the military system is a sure-fire way for the CPP to secure a conviction.
While Sok Sam Oeun could not pinpoint specific wrongdoing, he said the usually inactive court reserves its time for only the most politically charged cases.
In any given year, the court may hear two dozen cases, and the top prosecutor, characterized as a hard-nosed inquisitor who has been in government since the 1980s, conducts his work right next to a handful of cells, human rights workers said.
But government officials deny the two suspects’ incarceration was politically motivated and said their case—and that of two suspects in an upcoming trial of one-time Khmer Rouge leaders—requires the utmost security.
“When you have high crimes like this, the suspects need to be under more careful protection. They can get that in military prison,” government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
Ang Eng Thong, president of the Bar Association of Cambodia agreed. Yet he acknowledged that putting a suspect in military prison might be the surest way for the government to control a case.
Kang Bun Heang, for instance, was unaware of his right to choose his own lawyer, said Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho. “Normally, a victim like that can ask assistance to get a lawyer. But in military prison, he cannot contact us and get access. A lawyer should not be appointed by the court. He should be appointed by an NGO. It’s more independent,” she said.
Technically, a suspect’s lawyer can appeal to have his client moved from military court to civilian court. Kang Bun Heang’s and Ta Mok’s lawyers maintained they will seek to change courts when the time is right.
Ta Mok’s self-appointed lawyer, Benson Samay, said his client is treated better in military prison than elsewhere in the judicial system.
Years ago, Sok Sam Oeun and other legal analysts requested more clarification of the military court’s jurisdiction be included in the Ministry of Justice’s Criminal Procedures Code, which is still being drafted at the ministry and soon will go to the Council of Ministers for rewrites.
But little has happened since, as rights workers and government officials spar over the law’s many points, council officials said.
When asked to recall his 30-year sentence handed down by the military court in 1998 for illegally importing weapons, plotting to overthrow the government and stealing antiquities, Funcinpec security strategist and former first deputy governor of Battambang Serey Kosal could only laugh.
Although he was amnestied and says he has “made his peace” with the government, he says he will never forget the charges. “The military court, it’s the best game,” he chuckles. “It’s the best political game.”