Criminal Justice in Cambodia: A Corridor of Illusions

Rintoul AndrewBy: Andrew Rintoul

Time and again, the Cambodian criminal justice system has proven to be an arbitrary construct built and operated at the expense of the many. Against this illusory backdrop of legitimacy resides human beings, individuals with loved ones and lives awaiting them outside prison walls. This notion thundered loudly as Tep Vanny, a mother and a daughter, was asked by the defence lawyer about the status of her family at the Court of Appeal in Phnom Penh today. The ensuing display of emotion was difficult to behold without feeling a tremendous sense of remorse and anger at the system responsible.

Tep Vanny has been detained for nearly a year, since her arrest on 15 August 2016. In February 2017, she was convicted of “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” at the Phnom Penh Court of First Instance. The charges were based on allegations of violence against para-police during a 2013 protest near the home of the Prime Minister. During that protest, both she and numerous other protestors suffered serious injuries at the hands of the authorities. Her sentence of two-and-a-half-years’ imprisonment and US$3500 compensation to the plaintiffs remains, with the verdict from today’s appeal to be announced on 8 August 2017.

Court of Appeal, Phnom Penh

Tep Vanny is not alone. There are many who share similar experiences within the prevailing criminal justice system in Cambodia. In today’s appeal, as was the case in her first instance trial earlier this year, the burden of proof bar was non-existent. With plaintiffs and prosecution witnesses absent, there was no room for cross-examination. The submitted statements of these individuals, read aloud by the court clerk, were eerily similar and corroborated seamlessly one another. However, none presented any shred of credible evidence to prove the defendant’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. And yet, in coming to his verdict, the presiding judge will undoubtedly consider such proceedings to have been sufficiently legitimate. In the trials I have witnessed over the past months and in the numerous cases I have examined, painfully few have demonstrated any semblance of due process or a presumption of innocence. Her case is not rare; experiences with violations to enshrined fair trial rights are shared across the board.

There are also many who share Tep Vanny’s story, those who have had their land violently removed from under their feet and those who have joined in the struggle for justice. In 2014, more than half a million people in Cambodia had been affected by land grabs since 2000, with numbers continuing to grow since then. Tep Vanny was once a resident of Boeung Kak Lake, Phnom Penh’s largest lake at the time. In 2007, the municipality of Phnom Penh announced a 99-year lease agreement with Shukaku Inc., a private development firm. The agreement, which appeared to violate multiple Cambodian laws and international obligations, gave the firm jurisdiction to fill in the lake and to develop it as a tourist destination, in exchange for US$79 million. The ensuing increase in flooding and the destruction of homes led to thousands of evictions, with only a small minority of people willingly accepting meagre compensation and many being forcibly removed and given nothing.

This struggle led to the emergence of an incredibly brave group of Boeung Kak Lake land activists who have been taking action against the authorities since. Tep Vanny has become one of the most prominent and outspoken of these activists, along with a number of other women, including 78-year old Nget Khun. I have had the privilege of speaking with Nget Khun on multiple occasions and visited her at Boeung Kak Lake last month to discuss development in the country. Speaking in Khmer, she said, “We do not reject development, but development should provide appropriate compensation and homes and family happiness.” As she was a witness for the defence in today’s appeal, her sentiment rang clearly in my mind. The continued imprisonment of an outspoken mother on spurious charges for defending her illegitimately assaulted community is not development but utter decline and injustice.

A corridor of illusions

To reiterate, Tep Vanny is not alone. She shares with many others her suffered abuses at the hands of the Cambodian criminal justice system and she shares her story with the hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been affected by unjust land grabs and evictions. Today, her usually isolated post-trial march down the courthouse halls was done with arms around her two children, who were finally allowed into the courtroom as the two-and-a-half-hour appeal came to a close. However, to ensure she did not forget where she was going and who she had upset, eight officers surrounded them, escorting her quickly away from her family into the police vehicle to take her far from home.

Elections in Cambodia: Redirecting Forces of Repression into Winds of Change

Rintoul AndrewBy Andrew Rintoul

As the sun rose over Boeung Tompun in Phnom Penh on a Saturday morning, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters began arriving in droves. This was the first day of the campaign period, with the elections still several weeks away. Tuk-tuks, moto-bikes, and vehicles were all emblazoned with CNRP motifs while matching hats, shirts and flags were passed around the 10,000 supporters present. Through the lens of a DSLR, I observed supporters celebrating and dancing, honking their horns loudly as smiling spectators waived and asked for party hats to be thrown their way. I listened to the cheers and calls for change in Khmer and popular Cambodian pop songs dubbed over with CNRP-supporting lyrics. I heard a recorded speech of Sam Rainsy, former CNRP leader and now exiled man due to spurious criminal charges pressed against him in Cambodia, through a loud-speaker hitched to the top of a Jeep.

The mood was festive, the people were excited and passionate under the 40-degree sun, and the diverse amalgam of security personnel and military police under the auspices of the CPP did nothing but stand idly by as songs were sung late into the evening.

CNRP supporters cheer in Phnom Penh

It has been nearly one month since the country took to the polls for the first time since 2013. The ruling party, eventually settling on the current name, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has held power in the country since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. For over three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen has sat at the head of this regime, carefully crafting his image as a pseudo-deity and a generous and supreme leader. His heavy-handed policies and powerful military arm and security forces have been instrumental in maintaining this lustre and preserving the power of his party.

Four years ago, this armour revealed an unexpected crack as the general elections witnessed an extremely close race between the CPP and what has come to be the main opposition, the CNRP. Following results depicting a slight victory for the CPP, CNRP members and outside observers demanded accountability and argued election-rigging. Yet, in what appears to be familiar Hun Sen-style, the storm eventually blew over and the CNRP, which had boycotted the National Assembly for a year, finally came back into the fold and returned as the opposition.

It is this tumultuous political climate that provided the backdrop for the lead-up to the commune elections of June 4th. In the past four years, the voices of opposition supporters and any calls for change disruptive to the status quo have faced a string of new repressive legislation designed specifically for suppressing dissent. Under the guise of vague language such as public order, national security, incitement, colour revolutions, and confusion, new laws have created an arsenal of inaccessible rules giving authorities the capacity to manipulate and arbitrarily apply them to their liking. Human rights defenders are increasingly targeted and vulnerable, as are the organizations which set out to defend them.

CNRP rally through Phnom Penh

The streets seemed eerily quiet on the morning of June 4th. When I arrived at the office, citizens across the country had already been voting for thirty minutes. I quickly took a seat at my desk alongside several others to assist in running the organization’s live-stream of the event as reports and photos from monitors in the field began flooding in. In the afternoon, I accompanied a senior lawyer to a polling station and observed the last of the voters trickling in, followed by a closed-door counting of the ballots. Moments before the counting began, voters had been ushered out of the premises by heavily-armed security personnel who stood guard at the gates until the ballots were fully counted and relocated in transport vehicles.

Security guards sit at a polling station in Phnom Penh

In the weeks following the elections, the atmosphere in the capital has taken on a much different tone. The energy of the pre-election period has faded, likely to come back ten-fold in the national elections next year. According to the official results released last week, the ruling party maintained its grip on power by a large margin, in line with the expected result. Though not victorious, the opposition party made massive gains from the last commune elections, moving from winning only 40 communes in 2012 (combining the wins of the two parties who merged the following year to become the CNRP) to winning 489 out of the 1646 communes this year. Despite its apparently poor performance in the 2012 commune elections, the CNRP still took home 44.46% of the popular vote in the 2013 general elections to the CPP’s 48.83% of the vote; with twelve times more communes won this year, a continuation of the trend could mean a strong victory by the opposition in 2018.

It remains to be seen exactly what the ruling party has in store for the country in the lead-up to next year’s general elections. Certainly, much of this is dependent upon the actions and movements of civil society and the opposition party in the months to come. A glimpse into what may be in store occurred last week as Prime Minister Hun Sen called upon the Interior Ministry to investigate the legality and neutrality of an NGO collective after they reported several concerns over the recent elections. Amidst the uncertainty of the immediate future lies an inevitable truth; repressive legislation and targeted crackdowns will persist, but as they do, they will be met with a resilient and robust civil society capable of redirecting forces of repression into winds of change.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.