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Trial and error in Cambodia

Where justice is a joke that has deadly serious consequences

  • John Ashley Evans, Phnom Penh
  • Cambodia
  • October 9, 2012
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Here are just a few recent cases from the Cambodian judicial system, where the absolutely bizarre is entirely commonplace.

Mam Sonando, 70-year-old owner of an independent radio station, was sentenced to 20 years in jail by Judge Chang Sinath at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 1. He was charged with organizing a secessionist movement in Kratie province.

Sonando had been out of the country and voluntarily returned to Cambodia to face trial.  With no concrete evidence of any subversive activity on his part - he has hardly ever even been to Kratie -  the severe sentence caught even seasoned Cambodia watchers by surprise.  As he was whisked off to jail he told supporters: “I am happy to help the Khmer nation”.

Meanwhile the Koh Kong provincial court has just dropped the investigation into April's killing of an environmental activist, Chhut Wutty.  Deputy prosecutor Srey Makry argued that Wutty's assassin, one Im Ratana, had himself been killed, so  there was no need to take that case any further.

Ran Boroth was convicted of the accidental killing of Ratana.  Earlier in the year, police general Mok Chito completed his investigation and concluded there was nobody else involved.  Boroth worked for the Timbergreen Company and had once called upon military police to help him illegally confiscate Wutty’s camera memory card. But this was overlooked in the ruling.

Nor was there any mention of the fact that Boroth’s father was formerly chief of the Koh Kong forestry department and Wutty had once accused him of corruption.

The three military police officers involved in the questionable confiscation were not charged.  But the Koh Kong provincial prosecutor did conduct an investigation and spoke to numerous witnesses, even after the police general's report had been filed.  And it may be a telling point that, since that investigation, the deputy commander of the Koh Kong military police has been quietly dismissed.

In another strange case, this time at the Supreme Court, a 20-year jail sentence for conspiracy to murder was upheld by Judge Khin Pon against Ms. Seng Chenda, the 49- year-old wife of business tycoon Khaou Chuly.  The two maids who gave evidence against Chenda changed their testimony from what they said at the initial Municipal Court hearing to what they said at the Court of Appeal.

No other evidence was presented.  But the presiding judge of the Supreme Court still deemed the maids' testimony robust enough to justify the long sentence.

One week earlier, the same judge, Khin Pon, ordered the release of Ms. Tep Kolap, former rector of the Phnom Penh International University. She had been jailed on charges of embezzling US$ 58 million from Mr. Kok An, a senator of the ruling Cambodia People’s Party.

Kok An’s lawyer strongly criticized the decision to release Tep Kolap and said he would explore his options for challenging the verdict.  A few days later,  Tep Kolap’s car was chased by a group of uniformed men on motorbikes who fired three shots into it.  Fortunately she was able to reach the home of the Prime Minister, Hun Sen, and his bodyguards sprang to her protection.  The PM himself has since announced that her case is closed.

The fact is, the legal justice system in Cambodia is dark, cruel and capricious.  Mam Sonando is a courageous man who champions free speech, equality of all before the law and the creation of a just, civil society.  We can only watch and wonder what will happen to him as he starts his 20-year term.
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