What some witnesses describe as a fake auto accident involving a local opposition party official, and a court case over a fake treaty are raising new questions about the objectivity of Cambodia’s courts.
On Tuesday the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced opposition party leader Sam Rainsy and a pair of his assistants to five-year jail terms for a Facebook post showing a fake treaty with Vietnam.
While the court reduced the sentences to three years for Ung Chong “Mab” Leang, and Sombath Satya, who managed Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page, all three are still facing arrest.
The men were convicted in absentia of conspiracy to forge public documents, using fake public documents and inciting chaos for the 2015 post citing a false 1979 border treaty in which Vietnam and Cambodia supposedly agreed to get rid of their mutual boundary.
Following the convictions, Sam Rainsy accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of turning Cambodia’s legal system into a “kangaroo court.”
“Cambodia is a sadly unique country where innocents are prosecuted and persecuted while criminals walk free with total impunity,” Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Am Sam Ath, head of investigations for the human rights group LICADHO, said the cases have political overtones.
“I think the case is politically motivated,” he said. “As a civil society, we want to make sure that the court is independent so that it can be trusted by the general public.”
‘The police stood in front of the car pretending to collapse’
The convictions come as a local CNRP official was charged with assault for an incident involving his automobile on Dec. 22.
Din Puthy, the CNRP’s deputy head of operations in Poipet City, was accused of driving his car into Chhean Pisith, the deputy chief of the Poipet International Border Checkpoint.
Din Puthy is also president of a labor association that advocates for local moto-taxi drivers, cart pullers and other informal workers, formally known as Cambodia Informal Economy Reinforced Association.
While Chhean Pisith was taken away in an ambulance wearing a neck brace, video footage of the incident raises questions about whether the policeman was actually hit by Din Puthy’s SUV.
Witnesses told reporters the vehicle never touched Chhean Pisith, calling his account the incident into question.
“The car stopped, and the police stood in front of the car pretending to collapse on his own or to be unconscious,” a witness told RFA’s Khmer Service. “I see unfairness in this incident as the car did not hit [the victim]."
The witness, who told RFA he shot the video, added: “The car backed up a little bit and came to a standstill, and I saw the police officer fall down to the ground right away.”
‘He will be better at it than his work as a lawmaker’
CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said video of the incident raises concerns because the police officer didn’t act like someone who’d been hit by a car.
“If there is no collision with the car but he still got injured, I can conclude that maybe he collapsed because of a disease,” he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen mocked Mr. Chhay Eang’s analysis saying: “If his excellency goes to work as medical cross examiner, he will be better at it than his work as a lawmaker.”
Interior Minister Sar Kheng said further investigation is needed into the incident.
“This morning, I ordered the immigration department, as well as the Banteay Meanchey authorities, to examine this case prior to reaching any conclusion,” he told RFA.
Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have often been accused of using the courts as a political weapon. While many opposition party lawmakers find themselves charged with crimes, or facing lawsuits from CPP officials, the same can’t be said about the ruling party.
Tuesday’s conviction is not the first time Sam Rainsy has been entangled in court cases in his home country.
Sam Rainsy has been living abroad since he was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in late 2015 after a warrant was issued for his arrest in a defamation case in which he accused Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong of running a prison for the Khmer Rouge.
In 2011 the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Sam Rainsy in absentia for “public defamation and instigation of discrimination” for the 2008 incident. The final verdict in the case was delivered in March 2013, when the Appeals Court upheld the sentence.
Sam Rainsy was granted a royal pardon in 2013, allowing him to return to Cambodia from four years of self-imposed exile to contest the country’s general elections in July that year.
On Aug. 1, the same court convicted Sam Rainsy of defaming National Assembly President Heng Samrin, who is also a top official in the CPP.
Heng Samrin sued Sam Rainsy for defamation over a video the CNRP president posted on Facebook in 2015 that shows former King Norodom Sihanouk giving a speech with the words: “We remember that the regime born on 7 January 1979 used their court [system] to sentence [late] King Norodom Sihanouk to death on the accusation of being a traitor.”
Heng Samrin was president of Cambodia from 1979 to 1992, leading a government installed following an invasion by Vietnam that ended the four-year rule of the bloody Khmer Rouge regime. Heng Samrin contended the Facebook statement negatively affected his reputation.
Norodom Sihanouk was King of Cambodia between 1941 and 1955 and from 1993 to 2004. He died in 2012 of a heart attack and was succeeded by his son, Norodom Sihamoni.
Earlier this year Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered police, immigration and aviation authorities to "use all ways and means" to prevent opposition leader Sam Rainsy from returning from exile, as he has pledged to do before elections in 2017 and 2018.
Sam Rainsy told RFA that the cases against him and his assistants only served to stiffen his resolve.
“Today's court sentences handed to two young colleagues of mine and to me, only encourage me to fight harder in order to bring about a democratic change in Cambodia through the 2017 and 2018 elections,” he said.
Reported by Morm Moniroth and Leng Maly for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.