Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Government shouldn’t meddle in court decisions, officials say after US urges charges against opposition members dropped

A Prey Sar prison vehicle drives former CNRP activists to prison after their hearing as supporters are blocked by police officers near Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Picture taken on February 18, 2021. CambodJA/ Pring Samrang
A Prey Sar prison vehicle drives former CNRP activists to prison after their hearing as supporters are blocked by police officers near Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Picture taken on February 18, 2021. CambodJA/ Pring Samrang

A day after a top US official called for charges against former CNRP members to be dropped, Cambodian representatives said that the government shouldn’t be interfering in the affairs of an independent court.

“The government has just heard those requests but [we] can’t do anything because it is the court’s duty,” said government spokesman Phay Siphan.

“Cambodia-United States, we respect the rule of law entirely, so the government has no right or privilege to order the court,” he said. “Other issues are the court’s duty, it wasn’t involved with the government.”

On Tuesday, US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman called on the Cambodian government to drop what she described as politically motivated charges against imprisoned activists, journalists and members of the outlawed CNRP, and to reopen the political space ahead of the upcoming commune and national elections.

Sok Eysan, spokesman of CPP ruling party, echoed Siphan, saying that the government cannot interfere affairs of the court

“She [Wendy Sherman] has requested the government, it is the wrong place because the court has charged those defendants,” he said.

“We can’t do something to violate the law or interfere with the court’s duty,” Eysan said.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told CamboJA that the government will look into the requests but whether they can be addressed is up to the courts.

“As a diplomatic effort, the government will receive those requests, but whether we can implement or not is based on Cambodia’s laws,” he said.

Last year, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court began a mass trial of more than 130 former CNRP members and supporters on incitement and plotting charges, a case linked to their support of the unsuccessful return attempt in 2019 by former CNRP head Sam Rainsy.

Opposition leader Kem Sokha, meanwhile, remains in legal limbo after his treason trial was suspended last March 2020 due to COVID-19.

Sherman tweeted that she met with Sokha and discussed issues of shared importance, including ensuring a peaceful, prosperous, sovereign, and democratic future for Cambodia.

“The US supports the Cambodian, their aspirations for democracy, and their rights to exercise their fundamental freedoms,” she wrote.

Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said the Cambodian government should consider Sherman’s request to drop charges, in order to maintain both countries’ relations and to restore democracy and human rights.

“The visiting US Deputy Secretary [Wendy Sherman] was sending messages concerning the United States regarding the human rights situation and democracy in Cambodia,” he said.

He said the United States has played significant roles to maintain peace and the development of Cambodia after the election in 1993.

“If Cambodia wants to continue a good relationship in gaining trade benefits overseas with the US, we have to implement the principle that has been raised,” Chanroeun said, citing the principle of human rights and democracy that was also stipulated in the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement, as well as the Cambodian constitution.

“[Dropping political charges] is a solution that Khmer leaders should reconsider in regards to restoring a spirit of national reconciliation,” he said.

A statement released on Tuesday by the US Embassy in Cambodia stated that Sherman had expressed serious concerns about what the embassy characterized as a Chinese military presence and ongoing construction and demolition activities at Ream Naval Base along Cambodia’s coast. The statement said that a Chinese military base in Cambodia — forbidden under the nation’s constitution — would “undermine its sovereignty, threaten regional security, and negatively impact US-Cambodia relations”.

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