Supporters of four civil society workers and an electoral official held in pre-trial detention on bribery charges were blocked from visiting them at a prison in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh Wednesday, drawing criticism from a rights group which called the decision an “act of intimidation.”
Members of the rights group ADHOC and other civil society groups were refused permission to meet ADHOC officials Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda, and Lim Mony, and National Election Committee (NEC) deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after gathering at Prey Sar Prison, ADHOC spokesperson Sam Chankea told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Supporters had been refused permission from the court on several occasions since the five were placed in pre-trial detention nearly one year ago, he said, adding that they had hoped to see them Wednesday ahead of the April 14-16 Khmer New Year.
According to Sam Chankea, the court routinely gives supporters “excuses” for not granting them visits, including that its officials are preoccupied with other commitments, but he called the rejections “unreasonable” and said they indicate that the court “harbors ill will” against the five detainees.
“What the court is doing shows its persecution and prejudice against human rights activists,” he said.
“It’s nothing but an act of intimidation. The excuses that court officials are too busy to address our requests for a visit are absurd. It is possible that the court is under the influence of someone with ill intentions to persecute human right workers.”
A wide-ranging probe into a purported affair by opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha led authorities to charge the ADHOC officials with bribery and the NEC official with accessory to bribery for attempting to keep the CNRP chief’s alleged mistress quiet.
On March 24, investigating judge Theam Chanpisith ordered the heads of all correctional centers and prisons in Phnom Penh to refuse anyone other than family members and counsel permission to visit the detainees. No explanation was given for the order.
When asked why supporters were barred from visiting the detainees, General Department of Prisons spokesperson San Keo told RFA there was no good reason to do so.
“I don’t see any significant concerns that would warrant a ban of such a visit,” he said.
“The proceedings in their cases appear to have been concluded by now, for there have been no further summonses for witnesses to testify before the court during the past months. I don’t think there is any plausible reason to deny a request for a visit.”
However, San Keo said his department was bound by the court’s ruling, regardless of the reasoning behind it.
Also on Wednesday, family members of the detainees told RFA they were saddened that the government had refused to show leniency and release the five ahead of the traditional family reunions associated with Khmer New Year.
An earlier request to free them was rebuffed by the Ministry of Justice, which issued a statement through a spokesperson that “the law is the law.”
Speaking to RFA, Lim Mony’s daughter Un Bunnary said the New Year would be joyless without her mother, whose detention she called “arbitrary.”
“I wonder how the court and government officials would feel if their innocent loved ones were locked behind bars, even during the New Year celebration, when family members are supposed to reunite and enjoy each other’s company in their own warm homes,” she said.
“I won’t have time to celebrate this New Year because I must be at prison to visit my mother.”
Un Bunnary said that prison authorities allow her very little time to meet with her mother when she visits, and questioned how something so bad could happen to a woman who had done so much good for her community.
“My mother is a very good and caring person who does great service for this society—I don’t know how this could happen to her,” she said.
“I have no one to help us. I have been doing my best to call on the court to expedite her case and give justice to her, but all to no avail.”
“In the next couple of weeks it will be a year that she has been detained. I’m just very frustrated now.”
On Tuesday, residents of several communities in Cambodia’s southeastern Tboung Khmum province held protests calling for a royal pardon of the five, as well as jailed land rights campaigner Tep Vanny, so they could be reunited with their families during the Khmer New Year.
One resident told RFA that if the courts continue to detain innocent people, the impartiality of the judicial system will be questioned and support for the government will be eroded ahead of commune elections set for June 4.
Ny Chakrya’s attorney Som Sokong said that his client’s detention had left him in a poor state of mental and physical health, and also affected his family and work with the NEC in the lead up to the local polls.
Reported by Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.