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While Prime Minister Hun Sen used his first public appearance since coming out of quarantine to complain about delays in a French court, Cambodia’s own judiciary system has deprived thousands of their liberty due to delays.
PHNOM PENH--Prime Minister Hun Sen on Nov. 25 criticized the French courts for delays to his defamation suit against former opposition figure Sam Rainsy after French judicial officials said the trial won’t take place until at least 2022.
Hun Sen complained that he had filed the defamation suit against Rainsy with the French courts in 2019 and was unclear why his case would not go to trial until Sept. 1, 2022.
“It’s just a defamation case and it takes up to three years?” asked Hun Sen. “Why do [they] pressure the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to accelerate some big cases’ proceedings as fast as—ask yourself, this is a country considered [to have] an independent court with fast proceedings, [but it] has such issues?”
He went on to say he has hired three foreign lawyers, with one lawyer costing about $476 per hour. Hun Sen said that if he wins the case, he will demand just $1 in compensation from Rainsy.
Hun Sen and his son-in-law, Dy Vichea, deputy chief of the National Police, filed a defamation complaint to the French court in Paris against former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy.
Rainsy alleged that Hun Sen was behind the death of General Hok Lundy, a former National Police Chief who died in 2008 when his helicopter crashed in Svay Rieng Province.
In July 2019, Rainsy took to Facebook to claim that Hun Sen had had a bomb planted aboard Lundy’s helicopter after learning that the former police chief had evidence that tied Hun Sen to criminal cases.
Rainsy is yet to offer evidence to support his claim.
While Hun Sen railed against delays to his long-term feud with Rainsy, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 following the dissolution of the only viable opposition party.
Sokha did not stand trial until Jan. 15, 2020 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused further disruptions to the court case in which Sokha stands accused of colluding with a foreign power to overthrow the government—a charge widely regarded as politically motivated.
Hun Sen has since hinted that Sokha’s trial may not proceed until 2024, but offered little in the way of explanation of these projected delays. While Sokha’s lawyers in September 2020 requested the trial be expedited, the government responded by saying that “it takes time to find evidence” for treason and espionage cases.
However, the delays are widely regarded as intentional means of keeping Sokha out of Cambodian politics for the 2022 commune elections and the 2023 national elections, but other commentators have suggested the delays could stem from a lack of evidence on behalf of the prosecution.
Sokha’s trial has garnered international attention and numerous foreign ambassadors have attempted to apply pressure to secure the former opposition leader a fair trial—a constitutional right many fear will be denied.
Cambodia’s judiciary has long been hamstrung by backed up courts that appear unable to cope with the sheer volume of cases brought before them. Estimates from General Department of Prisons suggested that, as of June 2020, just 27 percent of the roughly 40,000 people incarcerated in Cambodia’s prison system had been fully sentenced. Furthermore, while 30 percent of prisoners had been convicted, they had not yet been able to fully go through the appeals system.
Perhaps most alarming was the remaining 43 percent of inmates, who were behind bars on pre-trial detention.
Similarly, Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin—two former Radio Free Asia (RFA) journalists—were accused of passing sensitive information to foreign powers in November 2017 and then for producing pornography in March 2018, but on Oct. 27, 2020, their case remained unsolved as the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower courts to reinvestigate the pair.
Civil society organizations said that the delays in the RFA journalists’ case amounted to “judicial harassment” and noted that delays to the trial were due to the critical nature of RFA’s coverage in Cambodia.
This was not the first time that Cambodia’s judiciary had targeted journalists and entangled them in lengthy legal proceedings. Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter, two journalists who worked for the now-defunct Cambodia Daily, were cleared of incitement by the Ratanakiri Provincial Court on Nov. 24, 2020.
But the charges were initially leveled against Pheap and Peter in May 2017, after reporting on the 2012 commune elections. The court’s decision to drop the charges comes more than three years after the Cambodia Daily ceased to operate—the fiercely independent newspaper had been hit with a politically motivated tax bill of $6.3 million and was the first of many victims in a renewed assault on Cambodia’s free press.