Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Justice in Cambodia

Give a little, take a little

TO THE cheers of hundreds of his noisy supporters, on March 14th an appeals court ordered that Mam Sonando—a broadcaster who has made himself a constant thorn in the side of Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen—be released from jail. In so doing it voided the 20-year sentence that a lower court had given him on a charge of inciting insurrection.

Almost immediately after Mam Sonando was handed his happy ruling, everyone in the packed courthouse learned that Ieng Sary, the former foreign minister for Pol Pot’s ruinous regime, had died. He was a frail 87. His death leaves only two other former leaders from the Khmer Rouge, alive and in compos mentis, to stand before a special UN-backed international court that was established to try them.

The news about Ieng Sary was a distraction from the matter at hand, but had the effect of contributing to the general air of disbelief around the appeals court. The two ageing Cambodian men had been standing before two very different tribunals for utterly different reasons. Justice in Cambodia is a notoriously murky affair, darkened by a tall cloud of allegations about the government’s tendency to interfere with the judiciary. It is also frustratingly slow. Both tendencies have come to the fore in the 15-year effort to try some of the most senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, who fled Phnom Penh back in 1979. With Ieng Sary’s death, many will turn to pondering yet again whether the machinery of the ECCC trials can possibly issue its judgments in time.
Most of the people who were watching the case of Mam Sonando, who is 71 years old, had expected that he would have to remain behind bars for a great long while.Instead, on Friday March 15th, he walked out a free man.

The first word the public had ever heard of his having raised an “insurrection” came in a speech delivered by Hun Sen. Afterwards a Phnom Penh municipal court made the charges formal. Soon thereafter it won a conviction against him that came with a 20-year prison sentence.

Mam Sonando is the owner of Beehive Radio, an independent station, and the president of the country’s Democrats Association. Cambodia’s civil-society bodies had regarded the original conviction as a political tactic on the part of the government, designed to gag one of its loudest critics before national elections, which are set for July. So they praised the appeals court’s decision as a victory for fair play and common sense—but they also expressed some worry over new conditions attached to his release.

Mam Sonando’s sparring with the government had escalated sharply after Beehive broadcast a report about a complaint lodged with the International Court of Justice which blamed Hun Sen for a stampede across a bridge in 2010 which killed some 353 people.

Soon after Beehive’s unflattering report, the prime minister claimed that Mam Sonando was attempting to establish a “state within a state” through collaboration with villagers in Cambodia’s north.

The appeals court quashed the most serious charge—of inciting insurrection—and with it most of Mam Sonando’s sentence. Other guilty charges have been left in place however, for crimes related (ironically) to land-grabbing and the obstruction of authority. Two of Mam Sonando’s fellow accused are also to be freed. They testified that they had been coerced into signing confessions that they didn’t understand. Both are illiterate; their signatures were their thumbprints.

It is a good thing that Mam Sonando will be released, according to Lao Mong Hay, an independent analyst, but on the other hand he “remains convicted of several charges which should have been dropped.” Mr Lao notes that Mam Sonando will have to report to the authorities regularly and be especially wary of causing trouble.

The mixed ruling should suit Hun Sen, who faces international pressure over his refusal to allow the best known opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, to return to Cambodia to contest the July elections. Mr Rainsy has been living in France, in a state of effective exile, in order to avoid submitting to a 12-year jail sentence of his own. Mr Lao says that Hun Sen wants the world to believe that Cambodia’s elections will be free and fair. He also wants to avoid letting Sam Rainsy back in the country. Mam Sonando’s case had been raised by Barack Obama during a visit last year. With his release from jail the Cambodian government should have one less headache in this arena.

“In terms of strategy, the government has watered down the pressure from the outside, from Obama, the Japanese [who have given scads to the UN-backed tribunal] and the international community,” according to Mr Lao. A foreign envoy characterised it as “give a little, take a little; they don’t want to martyr Mam Sonando.”

Earlier this week the Committee for Free and Fair Elections warned that Cambodia stands in danger of becoming a one-party state. The behaviour of Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the committee says, “trends towards authoritarianism”, while the courts, army and police are all deficient in terms of independence and impartiality.Banyan for The Economist (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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