Thursday, 18 June 2009

Cambodia: Getting away with murder

Amnesty International

Two recent court cases epitomise the disastrous state of the Cambodian judiciary, riddled with flaws, political interference and corruption. In one, the Prime Minister's nephew Nim Sophea walked free after two secret trials, amidst numerous allegations of bias on the part of the prosecution and the judge. He was cleared of shooting dead at least two people and injuring others in an attack of road rage on a Phnom Penh street.

In the second case, two men suspected of assassinating a trade union leader had their "confessions" beaten out of them following a shoddy police investigation into the death. The two suspects, Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, were arrested for the murder of Chea Vichea at a Phnom Penh newspaper stand in January 2004.

Just weeks before the courts cleared Nim Sophea, Cambodia’s donors met for the first time since 2002 to decide on the international aid budget to the country. Part of this funding was for the judicial sector. The Cambodian authorities had not been able to meet even one of the benchmarks set by donors in 2002 to encourage improvements in this sector. The Cambodian judiciary remains weak, corrupt and susceptible to political interference.

Nevertheless, donors agreed to give Cambodia US$504 million over and above the US$500 million requested by Phnom Penh. The international community did use the opportunity to castigate Cambodia for its failure to meet its own reform agenda, in particular the growing problem of corruption and the weaknesses in the judicial system. Sadly, as the Nim Sophea case shows, their reprimands appear to have fallen on deaf ears. Another testing point for the judiciary will come in early in the New Year.

On 4 January 2005, a few days short of the first anniversary of their arrest, the two suspects in the murder of trade union leader Chea Vichea will appear at the appeal court pleading for bail prior to their trial. Both Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun publicly proclaimed their innocence in this high profile case during a televised public press conference given on 29 January 2004. They complained of police brutality used to force them to confess to the crime, but Born Samnang retracted his claim of innocence and confessed again the following day.

A police sketch of the alleged killers, bearing a striking resemblance to the suspects, was released before any of the known eyewitnesses to the shooting were interviewed. Born Samnang had an alibi, supported by numerous witnesses, who, in turn, complained of police threats against them.

In March 2004, the first investigating judge, Heng Thirith, from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, ordered that the case be dismissed due to lack of evidence. The judge was summarily transferred from his position and publicly claimed that he had come under pressure from a senior government official to bring the case to trial. The conduct of the case has come under intense criticism both within Cambodia and from the international community.

The second case involves a markedly happier ending for the defendant. Nhim Sophea, a nephew of the Prime Minister, was identified by witnesses as the person who opened fire on a crowd at a traffic accident in October 2003, killing two people and wounding four. He was charged with voluntary manslaughter.

Nhim Sophea’s trial was heard in March 2004 effectively in secret, as the court neglected to provide notice that the case was to be heard. Relatives of the victims were paid sums in the order of US$8,000 and did not testify before the court. There were numerous allegations of bias on the part of the prosecution and the judge in favour of the accused.

Another person (who has never been apprehended by the police) was held responsible for the murder in absentia and sentenced. Nhim Sophea was sentenced to 18 months in prison after charges against him were reduced to involuntary manslaughter. In August 2004, a further secret hearing took place at the Court of Appeal and all charges against Nhim Sophea were dismissed. The Prosecutor did not appeal the case.

Both secret hearings were highly unusual and in breach of both Cambodia’s domestic law and its international obligations. An open hearing is an indispensable and fundamental right of the general public in a democratic society -- with very few and clearly defined exceptions -- to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done. It is essential in ensuring that impunity is not afforded to those who abuse human rights.

In a chilling reminder of the inequalities in the justice system, the case following that of Nhim Sophea in the Phnom Penh Court on 11 March was the trial of a man who had stolen 2,700 riel (approximately US$0.65). He was sentenced to four years in prison after his mother was unable to pay the US $1,000 required for his release.

Amnesty International has provided comprehensive recommendations for improvements to Cambodia’s judicial system in numerous reports over recent years; unfortunately there has been little progress. As we have seen, the government seems similarly unswayed by the words of international donors. The Cambodian people understandably have little faith in their justice system.

Recent reports indicate that Nhim Sophea has left Cambodia and is living with his mother, Hun Sen’s sister, in China. Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, on the other hand, look set for a long wait before they receive a fair trial.

When international donors met the Cambodian government at the beginning of December, they agreed on new benchmarks for improvement. The government must adhere to these benchmarks, and donor nations must link them to any future funding. Only then will the Cambodian people have a chance to build trust in their justice system.

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