Thursday, October 29, 2009

Our World: Cambodia's elite tip the scales of justice

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth

October 29, 2009

(Posted by CAAI News Media)

I wrote in this space last week, on the 18th anniversary of the signing of the Paris Accords on Cambodia, about how the stipulations in the Accords and the articles in Cambodia's Constitution it established promised the country and its people high hopes for the future. After 18 years, both the Accords and the constitution have failed to deliver a "liberal democracy" and "respect for and observance of" human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the idea of an "independent judiciary" has become only a dream.

The international non-governmental organization Global Witness calls Cambodia's ruling elite a "kleptocratic elite" that robs public assets and natural resources to enrich themselves.

Some forty percent of the people in Cambodia live below the poverty line and many have been forcibly evicted from their homes and their land.

American Physicist Albert Einstein said, "Don't listen to their words; fix your attention on their deeds," and America's 34th President Dwight David Eisenhower said: "Remember that it is not by a tyrant's words, but only by his deeds that we can know him."

Here's an illustration of Cambodia's judiciary serving as Premier Hun Sen's tool to punish the opposition:

On Oct 14, Cambodia's Appeals Court upheld the Municipal Court which, on June 10, dismissed Cambodian lawmaker Mu Sochua's lawsuit against Premier Sen for defaming her in a nationally broadcast speech in Kampot province -- Sochua's constituency.

In the speech, Sen spoke of a Kampot woman "choeung khlang" (literally, "strong leg," -- a hustler) who, "in the [July 2008] national election campaign, went to hug someone, then accused someone of undoing her blouse's buttons."

As the press reported, in the July 2008 election campaign Sochua spotted an army officer using a state vehicle in the campaign for the ruling party, an act not authorized by law. In a confrontation, the officer twisted Sochua's arms and her blouse was torn open. Sochua subsequently sued the officer for assault.

Sochua considered Sen's speech an offense to her "dignity," sued the premier for 13 cents for defaming her. But, Sen responded, he didn't mention Sochua's name in his speech; he countersued Sochua for defaming him. A few days after the second exchange, Sen called on the Parliament to lift Sochua's immunity.

In April, the Asian Human Rights Commission's said in a statement, this "seemed to be deliberate and was meant to threaten and intimidate" Sochua. The AHRC referenced Sen's past techniques: "court action, lifting of immunity, imprisonment or exile, and then pardon if [political opponents] surrendered to him."

The Municipal Court ruled that Sen did not mention Sochua by name, hence, he never defamed Sochua; and found it was Sochua who defamed Sen by suing him; so on Aug. 4 it ordered her to pay $2,500 in fines to the state, and $2,000 in compensation to Sen. So, about whom did Sen speak in Kampot? Which other woman had her "blouse's buttons" undone? How did the speech touch on the spirit of the law?

Yet, the Appeals Court found the lower court's decision had followed the spirit of the law. Lacking independence, the court's decision was not surprising.

Sochua decided not to appeal to the Supreme Court as the outcome seems predetermined. She declared, "there is no balance of justice in Cambodia ... this law does not render justice for me ... it only rendered justice for the prime minister."

Edmund Burke's words should be recalled here: "All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Two days after the Cambodian court's ruling in Sochua's case, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights issued a statement of concern on Oct. 16, over provisions in Cambodia's Penal Code that "jeopardize the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression," and called on the government to bring it "into line with international standards."

With Article 31 of Cambodia's constitution making international law "part of Cambodian law," the CCHR called for "the removal of the offense of defamation from the Penal Code to bring Cambodian domestic law into conformity with international principles." It charges, the Penal Code's "vague and ambiguous terminology ... creates a lack of clarity in the law, leaving it open to judicial interpretation and potential abuse," and it expressed alarm over "the inclusion of excessively harsh penalties throughout the Penal Code."

"It is of utmost importance for justice in Cambodia that our laws -- and particularly legislation as far reaching as the Penal Code -- conform with international law and the treaty commitments Cambodia has undertaken," declared the CCHR.

In the United States Congress, a group of lawmakers introduced a House Resolution on the "worsening problem of human trafficking in Cambodia," and condemn "the repression of opposition candidates by the ruling Cambodian People's Party." A non-binding resolution, it was nevertheless attacked by a CPP lawmaker as an "unthoughtful" piece by the "long-noses" who live "more than 1,000 kilometers away" -- "Our laws and those of the U.S. are different."

Still, donor countries, including the U.S., continue to make up half of Cambodia's national budget, and U.S. military aid continues to flow to the regime.

Yet, as Human Rights Watch's Asia director, Brad Adams, put it, "No one has ever been accountable under the Cambodian armed forces for the human rights violations," and, "People who are criminals are senior officials in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces now."

In the words of Bertrand Russell, "We have two kinds of morality side by side: one which we preach but do not practice and another which we practice but seldom preach."

A Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. Write him at

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