Cambodia’s opposition lawmakers on Thursday summoned the country’s top judge to answer queries in parliament over a series of court rulings which human rights groups say demonstrated the government’s misuse of the justice system to suppress dissent and undermine rights.
The lawmakers want Supreme Court President Dith Monty to clarify the jailing of independent radio station chief Mam Sonando and others linked to an alleged secession plot, as well as convictions of exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy and a popular land activist.
They also are seeking clarifications over the controversial dropping of charges against a former well-connected governor in the shooting of three female garment workers.
The lawmakers asked Dith Monty—who is also Chief Councilor of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the national body that regulates the judiciary— to clarify the cases before the National Assembly, the lower house of Cambodia’s parliament.
In a letter to the judicial chief, the 17 members of parliament from the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party said the cases showed the judiciary was not independent and was swayed by those in power.
“Cambodia’s judicial system has not yet become independent in fulfilling its duties,” it said.
“Judges and prosecutors are regarded as political tools for the ruling party and the rich.”
National Assembly President Heng Samrin has endorsed the call for Dith Monty to rebut the allegations by the lawmakers but the Supreme Court has not yet responded to the letter.
Son Chhay, head of the Sam Rainsy Party which has formed an opposition coalition with the Human Rights Party, said the lawmakers wanted to see Dith Monty discipline judges who exploit their roles.
“The Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which has the duty to punish any judges that abuse their professions, has ignored its duty,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
He accused Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of abusing the judiciary, saying it amounted to a violation of international human rights.
“People are losing trust in the judicial system,” he said.
Dith Monty is a member of the CPP’s permanent committee, while Supreme Court Deputy President Khim Ponn is a party central committee member, according to a document posted on the party’s website last year.
Opposition party members and rights groups have spoken out against the imprisonment of Mam Sonando, who was sentenced in October to 20 years in jail for masterminding a land revolt in Kratie province on charges that critics say are politically motivated.
The ailing 71-year-old owner of the independent Beehive Radio station was denied an appeal for release on bail last month.
This week, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights launched a “Mam Sonando Justice Calendar” campaign to count the number of days he has spent in jail, since his arrest in July last year, in a bid to put pressure on authorities for his release.
The lawmakers’ letter also called for further explanation of verdicts against Boeung Kak lake activist Yorm Bopha, the prosecution of exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy, and the acquittal of Bavet City ex-governor Chhouk Bandit.
On Wednesday, a Ministry of Justice spokesman said that the ministry has ordered an appeals court to reinvestigate Chhouk Bandit’s case, following his acquittal last month on charges of shooting three garment factory workers at a labor demonstration.
Sam Rainsy, who faces up to 11 years in prison in Cambodia on charges of incitement and damaging property that he says were part of a campaign of political persecution against him, is trying to return to the country ahead of national elections this July.
Rights groups have said the charges against Yorm Bopha were fabricated and have accused authorities of wanting to punish her for her campaign to seek the release of 13 fellow women activists from the Phnom Penh lake community.
Human Rights Watch charged last month that Cambodia’s courts are little more than an extension of Hun Sen and his ruling party.
“The Cambodian government has no shame in using the courts as an arm of oppression,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of protecting rights, Cambodia’s judiciary is being used to suppress dissent and undermine justice.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.