Cambodian court cements loss of democracy

Human rights leader Sopheap Chak says she was not surprised by a Phnom Penh court verdict imprisoning activists in what she calls a government ‘show of force’

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June 17, 2022
Cambodian court cements loss of democracy
Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights walks and talks with prominent political opposition figure, Theary Seng, who was among those sentenced in June's mass trial. Photo: courtesy of Sopheap Chak

Theary Seng remembers when her mother disappeared. She recalls falling asleep in their quarters inside a Khmer Rouge detention centre and woke to find her gone. The memory is just one scar from the brutal regime that killed her parents before she was 8 years old.

Four decades later, the Cambodian-American lawyer, activist and prominent opposition figure turned to a different matriarch: the ‘Mother of Exiles’ and icon of her second homeland, the Statue of Liberty in America. She was sentenced to six years in prison on 14 June in Phnom Penh, dressed as ‘Lady Liberty.’

Clad in teal robes and dusted with body shimmer, Seng grasped the torch of liberty and a tablet reading, “Paris Peace Accord, 23 October 1991,” referencing the agreement that ended Cambodia’s civil war and established the nation as a fledgling democracy.

Seng was convicted of treason in a mass trial with around 60 other opposition figures, whose sentences range from five to eight years. Cambodian authorities allege the defendants facilitated the 2019 failed return of exiled former Cambodia National Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy from France, a charge the defendants deny.

As Seng’s glitter-clad conviction casts a further shadow over the progress of human rights and justice in the Kingdom, Southeast Asia Globe spoke to Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, about her reaction to the verdict, Cambodia’s “brazen attacks on democracy” and why Seng’s highly public incarceration was no surprise.

Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights believes the Court ruling is a government power move. Photo: courtesy of Sopheap Chak

Has anyone spoken with the jailed defendants?
Not since they were convicted. I have only exchanged a few words with some of the defendants when observing court hearings in the past. As for prison visits, CCHR does not have access to prisons. If we did, we would limit these visits to jailed human rights defenders, not politicians, as CCHR is a politically neutral organisation. However, many visit requests that CCHR has made to the prison department in the past have either gone unanswered or been denied.

Is there an appeals process? How does it work and how long does it take? Do you think it will change anything?
I am unaware of whether the convicted individuals will wish to appeal their sentence. Even if they do, I highly doubt the outcome of the appeal process will achieve justice. Acquittals of human rights defenders and members of the opposition are rare in Cambodia, where criticism and dissent are no longer tolerated.

Why is this verdict and the imprisonment of these defendants significant for Cambodia?
Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn said a few months ago, democratic space in Cambodia has been lost to a politicised judiciary run by an all-powerful executive. Yesterday’s verdict only served to highlight the accuracy and soundness of this remark. With each instance of judicial harassment and intimidation of former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activists, Cambodia violates the democratic principles enshrined in both domestic and international human rights law. The court’s decisions show that the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC), not content with having dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, is now hell-bent on making sure a revival is impossible.

Cambodia is no longer a democratic country and has not been for years. This verdict makes that very clear, and any efforts by the RGC to justify or defend this verdict are morally bankrupt.

What does it mean for the opposition to Hun Sen’s government?
Since the dissolution of the CNRP and the banning of 118 CNRP senior party officials from politics in 2017, both members and supporters of the political opposition have sustained attacks on their freedoms. This verdict, as well as the intimidation and threats that Candlelight Party members have faced in the lead-up to the commune elections, illustrate that the RGC is continuing to target individuals with political views that do not conform to the status quo, in contravention of Cambodia’s human rights obligations.

The timing of this verdict is not random: it occurred less than 10 days after the commune elections – suggesting a show of force by the RGC following its electoral victory – and a year before the national elections – sending the chilling message that genuine opposition is not tolerated and that political opponents can easily be incapacitated.

This sustained targeting of former CNRP members or supporters has detrimental repercussions for Cambodia’s political landscape. It fosters a culture of fear and self-censorship and discourages political participation as citizens fear repercussions for expressing their political opinion. I believe this verdict acts as a warning to the opposition ahead of the national elections next year and makes it clear that any opposition, regardless of its popularity, is at the mercy of the RGC.

Will it hurt Cambodia’s international standing, especially in a year when the country holds the ASEAN chair?
The international community has repeatedly denounced Cambodia’s brazen attacks on democracy. Yesterday’s verdict will do little to assuage the international community’s concerns regarding Cambodia’s human rights and political situation. In addition, Cambodia’s domestic situation could damage its legitimacy as ASEAN chair – and therefore ASEAN’s authority – on issues pertaining to democracy and rule of law, the promotion of which are central to the ASEAN objectives. The importance of these values and of ASEAN’s ability to promote them legitimately and actively cannot be overstated at a time when the Myanmar military’s violent assault on democracy has been going on for 15 months and shows no sign of abating.

Do you think Theary Seng was given a long sentence as a warning to other activists?
Due to her outspokenness, her creative ways to criticise the ruling party and her bravery in standing up to injustice, Theary Seng has become a thorn in the RGC’s side and an inspiration to many. It is therefore possible that her conviction and sentence are meant to have a chilling effect and discourage anyone thinking of following in her footsteps.

Does your organisation plan to make any statements or perform any actions to support the defendants?
We have released a commentary and are examining our options for future advocacy on behalf of the defendants. Civil society organisations, including CCHR, have frequently expressed concern over the politicisation of the justice system and its instrumentalisation against the political opposition. We have also raised this issue with various United Nations mechanisms. We will continue to do so to defend Cambodians’ civil and political rights and to see democracy finally become a reality.

How do you think the Cambodian people will react to this verdict and the jailing of the dissidents?
In this digital era, news travels fast and the truth cannot be hidden for long. I believe that people are increasingly aware of the justice system’s bias against the political opposition.

The Constitution promises us an “Island of Peace” based on a liberal multi-party democratic system, yet we have lived in a de facto one-party state for years. The Cambodian people deserves – and is entitled to – a truly democratic country, with a multiplicity of political parties, and a political landscape that thrives off a diversity of opinions and views to build a just and pluralistic society.

Have you spoken to any activists around Cambodia or in other countries? What are they saying in response to the court’s verdicts and sentencing?
I expect that this verdict and what it means for Cambodia’s democracy – or lack thereof – will be another cause for concern for many activists in Cambodia. The RGC’s growing intolerance to criticism and opposition is extremely worrying and represents a threat for anyone daring to question the status quo. We remind the RGC of its obligations to uphold civil and political rights in Cambodia, and we urge the RGC to do much better in implementing these obligations. We call for the release of the defendants, and the withdrawal of the politically motivated charges against them.

Is there another important aspect of this court verdict that is important to consider?
This trial was marred by multiple violations of the defendants’ fair trial rights. Their lengthy pre-trial detention amounted to an arbitrary deprivation of liberty and was not in line with the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. The judiciary’s lack of independence was likely another obstacle to the defendants’ presumption of innocence being upheld, [and] it violated their right to be tried by an independent and impartial tribunal. Sadly, fair trial rights violations are common in cases against human rights defenders or opposition members in Cambodia. This trial and the court’s verdict exemplify the shortcomings and failures of Cambodia’s justice system. Judicial reforms are urgently needed for fair trial rights to be upheld for all defendants in Cambodia, including those who’ve upset the ruling party.

Were you surprised by the verdict and sentencing?
Sadly, no. Cambodia’s human rights and political situations have been backsliding for years and have been characterised by an erosion of political rights, an increase in restrictions of fundamental freedoms, and the consequent cementing of the Cambodia People’s Party’s power. As the courts are beholden to the ruling party, I had very little hope that the verdict would achieve true justice.

Cambodian-American human rights advocate Theary Seng, dressed as Lady Liberty, stands in front of Phnom Penh municipal court on June 14, 2022. Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

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