Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Rong Chhun heads to trial as Supreme Court denies bail application

Unionist Rong Chhun arrives at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh on November 25, where his bail application was rejected by the high court. Panha Chhorpoan
Unionist Rong Chhun arrives at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh on November 25, where his bail application was rejected by the high court. Panha Chhorpoan

The Supreme Court denied a bail application from Rong Chhun on Wednesday, as a lower court announced a trial date for the prominent unionist to face the charge of incitement for comments made about the demarcation of the Vietnam and Cambodia border.

The Supreme Court ruling was delivered Wednesday morning, where judge Kim Sathavy said the Appeal Court’s decision to prolong Rong Chhun’s pre-trial detention was sound. Chhun is the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions.

“It is necessary for the pre-trial detention of the defendant due to the charge that could seriously affect security, public order and the country’s peace. So, the Supreme Court decided to uphold the verdict of the lower court,” Sathavy said in the ruling.

Chhun was arrested on July 31 and charged with incitement to disturb social security for remarks he made in an interview with Radio Free Asia. During the interview, Chhun said Vietnamese soldiers had placed border posts at some locations in Tbong Khmum that were 500 meters inside Cambodian territory affecting farmers living along the contentious border.

Chhun, who was also a CNRP appointee to the National Election Committee, said he was disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision alleging that the charges were politically motivated.

“It is an injustice for me because I didn’t commit what they have charged me with and it was just an expression of my opinion,” he said as he walked out of the courtroom. “It is politically motivated.”

Chuong Choungy, the defense lawyer for Chhun, said his client’s alleged crime of posting a statement on social media about the border issue had shown no sign of disturbing social order.

“I have noticed the accusation against him has been escalated by the [court] because we do not see any signs of him trying to disturb social order after he went to the border, including the issuing of a statement,” Choungy said.

Choungy also confirmed that the Phnom Penh Municipal investigating judge in the case had completed the investigation into the charges and had sent it to trial on December 2.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said public opinion was that the case was less about law enforcement measures to ensure social order and more about Chhun’s comments on a politically sensitive issue.

The political opposition, led by the dissolved CNRP, have consistently accused the Cambodian People’s Party government of ceding Cambodian territory to Vietnam, as the two countries have carried out border demarcation activities.

“They have seen that arresting him is politically motivated rather than to implement the law,” he said.

Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the courts had failed to provide a check on administrative excesses, by allowing the government to routinely file charges against dissidents.

“Rather, the court has legitimized the recent government crackdown on the fundamental freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in contrast with Cambodia’s human rights obligations,” she said.  

“Unfortunately, this does not signal a return to a society in which democracy and human rights are respected and promoted in Cambodia.”

Last week, a group of United Nations rights rapporteurs called for the Cambodian government to stop the “systemic detention” of activists and human rights defenders, a reference to a slew of arrests following the jailing of Chhun.

Following his arrest, youth and environment activists protested the unionist’s arrest in Phnom Penh, with authorities detaining at least 12 of them.

Mary Lawlor, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, released a statement last week, which said she had reviewed evidence that activists were being prevented from assembling peacefully, and that efforts to advocate for the release of Chhun had only resulted in more arrests.