Cambodia’s government is using its control over the judiciary to silence rights campaigners and opposition activists ahead of local elections, Amnesty International said Tuesday, drawing a rebuke from an official who claimed the report does not reflect reality of the country’s courts.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has influenced the courts to jail at least 27 prominent activists and opposition officials since the country’s 2013 general election, the London-based rights group said in its report entitled “Courts of Injustice,” while hundreds more face “trumped up” charges.
“In Cambodia, the courts are tools in the hands of the government,” Champa Patel, Amnesty International's Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement accompanying the report.
“Much lip-service is paid to the judiciary’s independence, but the evidence reveals a cynical manipulation of the criminal justice system to serve political goals and silence people whose views the government refuses to tolerate.”
Amnesty said that the government regularly manipulates the justice system to detain people on “groundless charges” before subjecting them to “unfair trials.”
“Far from letting justice take its course on the basis of law, our research shows how procedural rules are bent to serve a set purpose, delivering pre-determined outcomes at the behest of the government,” Patel said, adding that Amnesty knows of no case where a rights defender or activist was acquitted.
Amnesty found that decisions on how cases proceed are often made to coincide with political events—such as demonstrations, elections or negotiations with the opposition—rather than on the basis of an investigation’s progress.
The group urged the government to drop all charges against peaceful activists and immediately release them from prison.
Cambodia’s Office of the Council of Ministers spokesperson Phay Siphan on Tuesday called the Amnesty report a “politically motivated” attack against the government, which he told RFA’s Khmer Service is “doing its job in accordance with the law.”
He added that the report “failed to reflect the reality” of Cambodia’s courts and hurt the country’s efforts to build a better judicial system.
“We have no interest in this evaluation because it does not [acknowledge] the court’s procedures, which stand on the basis of facts and merit in each case where a perpetrator is concerned,” Phay Siphan said.
‘Pillars of protection’
But Sam Chankea, spokesperson for local rights group ADHOC, told RFA that Amnesty’s report accurately details how Cambodia’s courts are influenced by politicians and the elite, despite provisions in the constitution meant to ensure the independence of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of government.
“We have seen that so far, the three branches are no longer serving as the triangular foundation of society,” he said.
“They have been transformed into pillars of protection of the government’s power. Hence, we see that the court system is weak and is under the management or instructions of the powerful elites.”
Hun Sen’s government has been quick to dismiss past condemnation of its human rights record and the performance of the judiciary, calling such statements “wild” or “inaccurate.”
Sam Chankea, however, suggested that the government should be more accepting of criticism from both local and international organizations, and work to correct its faults.
Amnesty’s report comes as 12 political parties prepare to compete for 1,646 commune council seats across the country on June 4.
Several officials and supporters of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been dragged before the country’s courts on what observers say are politically motivated charges since the CNRP nearly beat Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in 2013 general elections.
Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in Sunday’s polls, foreshadowing a possible opposition win in next year’s national elections.
Reported by Sothearin Yeang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.