The legal system in Cambodia is today rife with malicious criminal lawsuits by the rich and powerful against apparently innocent persons. The suits have variously related to political parties’ management of assets, land disputes, labour disputes, loan and service contracts, and freedom of expression. Some of those that the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has documented in recent times include the following.
In January, Chea Pek and So Sokhom were prosecuted for robbing rice that they had harvested from land allocated to them, among 222 families of Preah Net Preah district, by the Banteay Meanchey provincial authorities. Ownership of the land is contested by Kok Siv, Hort Vun and a number of rich merchants from Chub Vary commune. During the last planting season, the merchants sent tractors to destroy rice planted by the peasants and planted their own seedlings instead: they have accused the two men of stealing this rice, an offence for which they face three to ten years in jail under article 34 of the 1992 UNTAC Law.
In a similar case from the same province, Cheb Roeuk was also prosecuted in January with incitement to disorder after a confrontation between members of some 464 families in Samrong commune of O Chroeu district. Land totalling 2259 hectares was occupied by soldiers during the last civil conflict, at the end of which it was sold to merchants instead of being returned to the owners. Cheb Roeuk, one of the family members, was arrested when both sides went to harvest the same rice crop. He faces charges under the UNTAC Law as an accomplice to any crime committed, or for a misdemeanour if the incitement failed to achieve its objectives (articles 59 & 60).
In 2006 the government awarded 9800 hectares of woodlands in Sambor district of Kratie province to Global Agricultural Development Cambodia Ltd, a mainland Chinese company, for a teak plantation and wood processing factory. Over 100 families whose livelihood partly depends on the gathering and sale of forest byproducts protested the transfer in January. Leang Seng, deputy-director of the Provincial Agriculture Department, went on radio to charge that some people had incited the families to stage their protests, implying that if identified they would be arrested and charged.
In December 2006, Chum Vanny and relatives protested against the grabbing of his land in Kandal province by PHANEMEX, a powerful land development company with close connections to the country’s leadership. Chum Vanny’s son was severely injured during their eviction from the land by the police and hired men. Several days later he received a summons to appear in the provincial court to answer a charge of fraud, for which he faces a jail term of one and five years under article 45 of the UNTAC Law. The criminal case is an extension of the civil case that the company had already launched against him. The AHRC has issued an appeal on this case.
In June and July 2006 workers at Jenchou Inn Factory in Kanthouk commune of Angsnoul district, Kandal province went on strike to demand better working conditions and the reinstatement of their union’s officials and other fellow workers who had been sacked by the company. The strikers blocked the factory’s gate, but left a passage for staff to get in and out. However, three officials of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, Lach Sambo, Gneom Khun and Koemsan, all working at that factory, were later arrested at their homes on the charge of illegally confining the staff. On August 7 they were sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, with one month and four days served and the rest suspended. The AHRC issued an appeal on the case on August 10.
Also in 2006, Eng Vanna, Sieng Sidaro and other staff of the Phnom Penh Cable TV Company formed a union named Phnom Penh Cable TV Employees Union. Eng Vanna and Sieng Sidaro were elected to be its president and vice-president respectively. They officially registered their union in October and went to notify the company director. He blamed them for not having told him earlier and filed a criminal lawsuit against Eng Vanna and Sieng Sidaro for allegedly stealing the company’s master plan. In November the prosecution at the Phnom Penh court summoned them for questioning; in early January the company suspended them from work and sacked them on the same day. It submitted a copy of the court summons to the labour ministry to justify its decision.
In a political case, during November 2006, Nhiek Bun Chhay, secretary-general of the FUNCINPEC party filed a complaint at the Phnom Penh court accusing Prince Norodom Ranariddh, former president of the party, of selling the party’s headquarters and using the proceeds to buy another property in his own name. Chiek Bun Chhay requested the court to prosecute Norodom Ranariddh for breach of trust, a criminal offence under article 46 of the UNTAC Law punishable with between one and five years in jail. Civil litigation is already proceeding against the former president; however, in early January the party urged the court to arrest him “to enable the smooth court proceedings and solve the complaint”.
Meanwhile, the government has been charging critics with criminal disinformation. For instance, in September, Hek Samnang, Thach Ngock Suern and Try Non were arrested and charged with disinformation and defamation for having disseminated leaflets accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of involvement in corruption and land grabbing. In fact, defamation is a sufficient charge in this case, but as it no longer carries a jail term disinformation was added. Under article 62 of the UNTAC Law, it carries a penalty of six month to three years in prison.
Similarly, in August 2006, Teang Narith–a law and politics lecturer at Sihanouk Raj Buddhist University in Phnom Penh–was dismissed and the following month arrested and charged with disinformation for writing a book critical of government policy. He has been in jail since. The AHRC has released two appeals on his case. He too is facing a jail term of up to three years.
This growing practice of turning civil suits into criminal ones is going on with the connivance of the Cambodian courts. It is not the pursuit of justice but rather demonstration of malice. The courts are evidently now under complete control of the powerful and wealthy. Not only do they fail to do their duty to protect constitutional rights, but are themselves active abusers of these rights.
The Asian Human Rights Commission demands that malicious criminal lawsuits in Cambodia be stopped. The King, who is head of the judiciary and a guarantor of his people’s rights, the chief justices of the Supreme Court and Appeal Court and presidents and prosecutors of all other courts must act to end this practice and to ensure equality before the law and equal protection by the law. The AHRC also urges donors in UN and other international agencies to work with the judiciary and prosecution in particular to put a stop to the needless pursuit of innocent defendants through civil and criminal cases, and to protect the basic rights of all Cambodians to protection, not persecution, under the law.