UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith, as part of her 11-day visit to the country, met Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana to discuss the ongoing de-facto detention of opposition leader Kem Sokha and other justice system-related topics, she said on Thursday.
After the meeting with the justice minister, Smith was quizzed by reporters on whether she had specifically discussed Kem Sokha. The leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party is being held under house arrest in Phnom Penh after being released from prison on Sept. 10, 2018, a year after he was arrested on treason charges widely seen as politically motivated.
The release of the former CNRP president from pre-trial detention carries the conditions that he must stay within a block radius of his home, cannot meet with former CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot speak at or host any rallies or political activities. The government banned the CNRP two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest, sending many party members into exile.
He still faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason.
Smith confirmed that she had discussed the opposition leader but said she was in no position to ask the Ministry of Justice for his immediate release because that is the domain of the courts. She underscored her view that his house arrest goes against human rights norms.
“Although he is in a technical legal sense according to the Ministry of Justice under judicial supervision, in my view he is still under de facto detention because of the limitations placed on him by the judicial supervision,” she said.
“In my view, and I believe also in the view of my colleagues, in the working group [on arbitrary] detention, he’s still being detained, so therefore it is problematic from a human rights perspective,” she added.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin contradicted Smith’s account, denying that Kem Sokha’s situation was discussed.
“We discussed on how to conduct judicial reforms. We did not discuss on political issues or NGOs’ requests. She didn’t raise [any issue] about the opposition party,” he said.
Following the meeting, she wrote in a Facebook post that the discussion focused mainly on the rights of prisoners and those facing trial in the country.
“As a follow-up to our previous discussion in November 2018, I was updated on the progress made by the Ministry including in providing legal aid, raising awareness of alternatives to custodial sentences, and reducing prison overcrowding. We also discussed matters related to pretrial detention, Cambodian Sustainable Development Goals, and SDG16 on access to justice,” wrote Smith.
Smith also met with Phnom Penh mayor Khoung Sreng to discuss freedom of expression.
Also on Thursday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced CNRP Acting President Sam Rainsy to eight years in jail and a fine for charges of incitement the military not to obey orders and for insulting Cambodia’s King.
Former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrith condemned the verdict saying it was entirely political.
“The verdict is useless because the people have stopped believing in the court because it is not independent,” he said.
To date, at least eight cases have been filed against Sam Rainsy, who has lived in exile since October 2015. The acting president is charged with defaming Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong, defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and insulting the King.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.