Cambodia’s opposition party may appeal to the International Criminal Court (ICC) to reverse a decision to dissolve it, one of the party’s deputy presidents said Friday, as the international community continued to heap scorn on the country’s judiciary over what is seen as a politically motivated verdict.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously ruled that the country’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) be dissolved for its part in plotting a “coup” against the government, essentially eliminating any competition to Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of a general election next year.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 for allegedly collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), and Thursday’s decision found the opposition party guilty of involvement in the “conspiracy.”
On Friday, CNRP Deputy President Eng Chhay Eang told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia’s judiciary is “damaged by political bias,” noting that his party hadn’t bothered to appoint a lawyer in the case heard by the Supreme Court, whose nine-member bench is filled with senior members and close affiliates of the ruling party.
Instead, the CNRP may bring the case to The Hague-based ICC in a bid to go above Cambodia’s court system and have the Supreme Court’s ruling reversed.
“We have no faith in Cambodian courts, as Hun Sen is above all of them,” said the deputy president, who along with more than half of CNRP lawmakers have fled Cambodia since Kem Sokha’s arrest, fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot.
“Whatever he wants, the courts agree to, so it was pointless to have any lawyers represent the CNRP in such a politically motivated case,” he added.
“Instead, we will consult with legal experts on the possibility of bringing this case to the attention of the ICC.”
Brad Adams, New York-based Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, said his organization has long advocated for the ICC to investigate Cambodia, based on what he said were a laundry list of abuses perpetrated by the government against the country’s opposition.
“Hun Sen is engaged in systematic violence against the opposition—he has ruled with impunity,” Adams said of the political strongman, who has controlled Cambodia for more than 30 years.
“Cambodia under Hun Sen has not been willing or able to prosecute the people responsible for serious human rights abuses.”
Richard Rogers, a partner at the London-based law firm Global Diligence who filed a 2014 complaint with the ICC on behalf of victims of land grabs and a 2016 legal brief on last year’s murder of government critic Kem Ley, told RFA earlier this month that the ICC has jurisdiction over Cambodia in cases concerning political repression.
“Many of the crimes that relate to the current crackdown would fall under the umbrella of crimes against humanity … and that’s why the ICC has jurisdiction,” Rogers said at the time.
In March 2002, Cambodia ratified the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court—the treaty that established the ICC—and in doing so gave the court jurisdiction over crimes committed on its territory or by its citizens beginning on July 1 that year.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan on Friday dismissed any suggestion that the ICC could reverse the decision to dissolve the CNRP, saying “the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction over Cambodia.”
Only around a dozen cases have made it to the ICC’s preliminary examination stage after filing complaints in the 14-year history of the court.
As the CNRP mulled whether to appeal its case to an international tribunal Friday, condemnation continued to pour in from around the globe over the Supreme Court’s decision to shut down the opposition party and ban 118 of its members from politics for the next five years.
The White House said in a statement late on Thursday that the U.S. will begin taking “concrete steps to respond to the Cambodian government’s deeply regrettable actions” by terminating support for Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) and its administration of the July 2018 general election.
“On current course next year’s election will not be legitimate, free, or fair,” the statement said, urging Cambodia’s government to reinstate the CNRP, release Kem Sokha, and reverse a crackdown in recent months on civil society and the media.
The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which in April announced a grant of U.S. $1.8 million to support the NEC’s work during commune and general elections, expressed “gravest concern” over the ruling, calling on Cambodia to stop targeting the CNRP and interfering in the work of NGOs.
In a statement issued by Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maja Kocijancic, the European Union threatened to withdraw its support of Cambodia’s electoral process unless a situation in which all parties, their leaders, and their supporters are able to freely participate is “swiftly restored.”
“An electoral process from which the main opposition party has been arbitrarily excluded is not legitimate,” the statement said, adding that “respect of fundamental human rights is a prerequisite” for Cambodia to continue to benefit from EU assistance.
The Ministries of Foreign Affairs for Australia and Sweden also voiced concerns over the verdict and urged Cambodia to reverse course, with the latter vowing to “review the forms of our engagement” with Phnom Penh.
In statements Friday, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein voiced concerns over the legitimacy of Cambodia’s upcoming elections in light of the ruling, while the Inter-Parliamentary Union said the foundation of Cambodia's democracy had been threatened.
China was one of the few nations to speak out in support of the decision, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang telling reporters at a briefing Friday that Beijing would stand behind Cambodia in pursuing its own development path.
Meanwhile, CNRP supporters in Europe released a statement Friday accusing Hun Sen of “killing democracy in Cambodia” and calling on members of the Cambodian diaspora to gather in France this weekend to demonstrate against the government’s actions.
The supporters will meet on Nov. 19 in Paris to demand a reversal of the Supreme Court ruling, call on all Cambodians to stand up for the protection of human rights and freedom in Cambodia, and urge the U.N. and the international community to level sanctions against Hun Sen’s regime.
Hun Sen has announced that when the CNRP is dissolved, its parliamentary seats will be redistributed to other government-aligned political parties, and has pressured CNRP officials who were elected in the June commune ballot to defect to the CPP.
At present, the CNRP holds 55 seats in the National Assembly, around 5,000 councilor positions at the commune level, and nearly 800 provincial/municipal level councilor positions after strong showings in recent elections, and counts more than three million active supporters in Cambodia.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.