Newer Entries »

LICADHO employee, Leang Sokchouen, at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal

Leang Sokchouen at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal. Photo by LICADHO.

Yesterday, I attended Leang Sokchouen’s trial at the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal. Sokchouen is a LICADHO employee who was charged with disinformation (under the UNTAC Penal Code) in September 2010. Here an extract of the LICADHO press release issued after the trial court ruling:

Sokchouen was accused of distributing anti-government fliers in Takeo Province on January 4, 2010. Sokchouen was a longtime acquaintance of co-defendant Tach Khong Phoung, but consistently testified that he had no knowledge on the flier incident. The so-called evidence provided by the police against Sokchouen consisted of a simple list of phone numbers claiming Sokchouen and Tach Khong Phoung had called each other.

Another defendant, Tach Vannak, initially claimed while detained at the Ministry of Interior’s National Police that Sokchouen was involved in distributing the fliers.

However, Vannak retracted part of his statement in court yesterday, saying that he only implicated Sokchouen because of false promises made by police interrogators. He claimed police promised him that he would be allowed to go back to his family in exchange for his cooperation.

(…) The prosecution produced no in-court witness testimony or evidence. The judge relied entirely on written statements and four alleged witness statements from police officers. None of these individuals were ever called to court by the investigating judge.

By all appearances, the investigating judge did not do any investigative work on the case whatsoever. This is contrary to the spirit of Article 127 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states that an investigating judge “has the obligation to collect inculpatory as well as exculpatory evidence.” This oversight left the trial judge to rely entirely on police investigation report – written before the suspects were questioned or arrested.

Conversely, the Sokchouen’s defense team provided extensive in-court testimony, including evidence that Sokchouen was in Phnom Penh – not Takeo – on January 4, 2010.

The judge stated that in-court testimonies by the three accused “could not be trusted” and based his decision entirely upon the police report and interrogation. Article 118 of the Code of Criminal Procedure states that police reports can be used for “information only,” but that they may also be considered as evidence if they are not “proven false.” Despite strong evidence that the police report was indeed false, the judge failed in his duty to evaluate its veracity. He simply accepted the report as truth.

In appeal, Sokchouen was represented by two LICADHO lawyers, who were given less than 24 hours to prepare. During the hearing, Sokchouen’s lawyers requested bail. However, after a five minute discussion, the judges refused citing possible public disorder. The judges, along with the defence, interviewed Sokchouen. In under two hours – with two of the judges regularly dozing off – the court announced that their final verdict would be communicated on July 14th at 8am. While about 100 people showed up to support Sokchouen, only a small number were allowed in the court room despite it being a public trial.

Using new laws to impair freedom of expression in Cambodia

By Siena Anstis

This past week I started writing a brief on the use of repressive legislation in Cambodia to restrict freedom of expression and related rights like freedom of association and assembly. With a majority in Parliament, the ruling Cambodian’s People Party has passed or is about to pass legislation that could be used to legitimize their crackdown on human rights defenders, NGOs, journalists and other concerned parties critical of the government.

Penal Code

The new Cambodian Penal Code was passed in December 2010. It replaces the former UNTAC Penal Code. While the new Penal Code does not contain the same UNTAC disinformation clause (which has been used to jail journalists and wrongfully convict other individuals), it creates a number of new crimes susceptible to abuse. This includes a provision for “incitement” which is defined as incitement to commit a crime or incitement of “serious turmoil in society.” Shortly after the passage of the new Penal Code, World Food Program staff member Seng Kunnaka was convicted on the charge of criminal incitement for printing and sharing material from the website ki-media, an online blog critical of the government [Incidentally, as I write this, my access to ki-media is down again. There are rumours the government is having it blocked]. The government is not hiding one of the new Code’s purposes: “Before, using the argument of ‘freedom of expression’ and opposition party status, some people could insult anybody or any institution. This is not the case now,” said the Cambodian Minister of Information.

For a more in-depth analysis of the new Penal Code provisions, check out this report.

Demonstrations Law

The Demonstrations Law was adopted in 2009. It makes it de facto necessary to receive authorization to protest. Demonstrations can be refused if they harm the rights to “freedom and honour of others, good customs of society and national security”. This differs from the ICCPR article which allows for limits on demonstrations only on the basis of “public safety, public order, public health or morals.” Moreover, the law fails to provide judicial redress in cases where authorization is refused. The Centre for Cambodian Human Rights Report also suggests that the law has been used before to crackdown on private meetings. Finally, and possibly the most disconcerting part of the law for the moment, is the creation of “Freedom Parks” across the country. These “Freedom Parks” are areas where protestors can hold protests after providing 12 hours notice. While the parks do not exclude the use of other public venues, there are concerns they may still be used to isolate and neutralize demonstrations.

Anti-Corruption Law

The third law is the Anti Corruption Law passed in May 2011. While a number of corrupt officials have been charged under the law, there are allegations that these charges are more related to factional splits in the ruling party than to corruption in Cambodia. A number of provisions are problematic. In particular, the law does not provide adequate protections for whistleblowers and thus discourages people from coming forward.

Draft Trade Union Law

The draft law contains a number of provisions that offer the government an opportunity to legitimize their crackdown on the trades union sector through the courts. Several articles of the law blatantly violate the International Labor Organization Convention No. 87 (see this article by article analysis of the law). Key concerns include the inclusion of criminal penalties and hefty fines that could be used to threaten union leaders from speaking out against the government. Vague language contained in the law could also be used by the government to curtail freedom of expression. For example, the provision outlawing demonstrations for “purely political purposes” could be used to prevent legal demonstrations or strikes in opposition of government policies.

Draft Associations and NGO Law

This law is currently in draft form, but it is expected that the government will try and pass the law before the end of the year. In violation of freedom of association protected under the Cambodian Constitution and the ICCPR, the law enforces the mandatory registration of associations and NGOs (see this analysis by LICADHO). It also imposes a number of burdensome registration requirements, which would severely restrict the operation of rural grassroots groups with limited resources. It gives authorities unbounded discretion to approve registration applications, with few guidelines to transparently steer these decisions. There is no appeals process if registration is denied. The law is also loosely drafted, giving it an apparently unlimited scope.

In its current form, the law would likely lead to the outlawing of several informal groups which do not want to register with the government or do not have the capacity. These informal networks give a voice to a number of vulnerable groups including sex workers. The likely closure of grassroots NGOs and associations, which provide information to international donors, could impair economic development in Cambodia. With the press muzzled and the private sector often complicit in human rights violations, NGOs are the last body able to report on human rights abuses and corruption in Cambodia.

Apparently a couple of embassies in Phnom Penh (but not the US embassy), when first faced with the Associations & NGO Law, thought it was a perfectly reasonable law to have in place. After all, many Western countries do have some kind of Association and NGO law. What they failed to consider was the Cambodian context. Most importantly, there is no judiciary to enforce the law fairly (see Cambodia’s recent ranking as 35/36 on the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index) or to create a body of precedent that would narrow or at least purposively develop the ambiguity of many of these provisions. Rather, new laws give the government something to point at when they decide to shut down an NGO, move a protest to a Freedom Park or fine a union leader. New laws make it harder to argue that the government is acting out of bounds.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

Visiting Takhmao prison

By Siena Anstis
Yesterday, I went with the LICADHO Prison Office staff to Takhmao prison on the outskirts of Phom Penh to conduct interviews with inmates and visit Leang Sokchoeun. He used to work with LICADHO, but was arrested in May 2010 and accused of involvement in the distribution of anti-government leaflets. He was charged with disinformation under Article 62 of the UNTAC law. On May 29, 2011, he will have been in prison for one year and is slated to remain incarcerated for another year. Sokchoeun’s mother was with us, bringing her son bags of fruits and vegetables. The government gives each prisoner only 0.70 USD for food per day (to learn more about prison conditions in Cambodia, read Dararith’s story). Like other prisoners, Sokchouen relies on external support to survive. Sokchouen and his lawyers have filed an appeal, but they have not yet received any information on its status.

Shortly after Sokchoeun’s sentencing, LICADHO published this briefing paper on the “Role of the Cambodian Judiciary in Political Cases.” The paper highlights a number of irregularities in Sokchouen’s trial that demonstrate how the government, the police and the courts work together to punish Cambodian activists. Another report from the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), on the situation of human rights and democracy in Cambodia in 2011, underlines that “the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence continues to be one of the most important factors preventing Cambodia from developing a fair, just and inclusive society based on the rule of law.”

Takhmao is Cambodia’s ‘model prison,’ built with funding from the Australian government through their Cambodia Criminal Justice Project. The Prison Fellowship, a Born Again Christian NGO founded by former Nixon aide, Charles Colson, also provides some educational programs for inmates. Juvenile, male and female prisoners live in separate areas, which is rare in Cambodian prisons. Despite these benefits, this prison is still 332 per cent over its capacity.

Prisoners hang on bars as we walk by to the visiting area. Some stand in small groups outside. I am told that each prisoner gets about 1-2 hours of exercise per day. However, corruption in Cambodia is pervasive and it is not clear whether this is a privilege that inmates pay the prison guards for, or whether it is a rule that gets enforced regardless.

Overcrowding in prisons is one of many problems in the Cambodian judicial and penal systems. Another disturbing issue documented by LICADHO here is that prisoners must pay for transportation to their trials. Many prisoners are poor and cannot afford this fee and thus are tried in absentia. That same report by LICADHO also notes that less than one per cent of inmates in the prisons nearest to Phnom Penh, where the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal is located, have appeals pending.

For more information on prisons in Cambodia, you can consult LICADHO’s “Prison Issues” page.

The content and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by LICADHO or its affiliates.

Some news from Phnom Penh

patrickBy Patrick Reynaud

The first few weeks in Cambodia have been quite fascinating.

I am working at The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, known as LICADHO. This is one of the most prominent human rights NGOs in the country, founded in 1992 by Dr. Kek Galabru. LICADHO is very active on a varied number of fronts pertaining to the promotion and defense of human rights. Prominent issues recently have included abusive expropriations, also known as land grabs, performed by government authorities on behalf of business interests either closely linked or forming an integral part of the current governance structure. Significant and sometimes violent relocalizations of entire communities, without proper compensation, have abounded in recent years, both in Phnom Penh and the provinces. Another important area of activity for LICADHO of late concerns threats by government authorities against human rights defenders.

Unfortunately, community representatives, journalists, NGO members, monks and many other individuals who voice their opinion against the government on various issues, including land grabs, have found themselves imprisoned. Common charges include disinformation or incitement, which are criminal offenses and are used by public prosecutors in order to silence government critics, as well as political opposition. Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition against the Cambodian People’s Party of longstanding Prime Minister Hun Sen, escaped abroad after being charged with destruction of property and incitement by the courts. Mu Suchua, another prominent opposition politician was recently charged with defamation against Hun Sen, for holding a press conference where she accused the Prime Minister of defamation. She has refused to pay the fine, and is likely to be imprisoned shortly for contempt of court.

These problems highlight what appears to be an endemic and recurring issue, namely the lack of a consistent rule of law in Cambodia. The executive branch seems to wield a heavy influence with the judiciary. Issues of impartiality and corruption unfortunately abound. The legislative structure is arguably in place to ensure respect for human rights and the democratic process. What lacks is an independent judicial authority to enforce laws.

For instance, judge Ney Thol, a longstanding President of the Military Court and member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party Central Committee, is best known for presiding at two major trials where Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political opponents were convicted of national security related crimes. In 1998, he sentenced then opposition leader Norodom Rinariddh to 30 years imprisonment. Later, in 2005, he condemned opposition politician Cheam Channy to 7 years of detention. During this trial he barred defense lawyers from calling witnesses and interrupted their cross-examination of prosecution witnesses. Judge Ney Thol is now a member of the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), an international tribunal responsible for trying former Khmer Rouge leaders involved in the genocide that occured in the late 1970s.

Although the most prominent cases include opposition politicians, many individuals critical to the current regime have unfortunately been condemned of or threatened with spurious legal charges. The most recent trend for intimidation involves the release of human rights defenders on bail. Pending charges will often not proceed to trial, but niether will they be dropped, to serve as a tool guaranteeing the good behavior of those released.

A recent personal experience highlighted issues pertaining to official authorities. I was unfortunately stopped by police on a Phnom Penh boulevard while riding my motorcycle. The policeman promptly demanded $50, while threatening to confiscate my vehicle and to bring me to the local police station. An interesting negotiation session ensued, whereby the informal payment was reduced to $5 for the multiple driving offenses I was ostensibly guilty of. The most effective way to avoid dealing with local authorities is to ignore their summons to pull over when apprehended; unfortunately the particular layout forced me to stop the vehicle. Police as civil servants are poorly and irregularly paid, and as a result most fines are informal payments meant to complement their income.

Another worrisome trend has been the Cambodian government’s repeated intention to pass a law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, commonly known as NGO law. The official purpose of the law would be to curb crime and corruption on the part of NGOs, as well as to prevent terrorist activity, both of which are already dealt with under the penal code and anti-terrorist legislation. The law would most likely be used to restrict freedom of association by denying registration to NGOs critical of government policies.

Working at LICADHO has been quite interesting. My coworkers are warm and welcoming. I have travelled to the south and Sihanoukeville with some colleagues, as well as Kirirom National Park, as the motorcycle gives an easy opportunity to travel on week-ends. The country is quite beautiful, and I naturally look forward to visiting the north and Angkor Wat later in August.

Newer Entries »
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.