Released, But Hardly Free (Still "Guilty")
Posted: Thu Jun 05, 2014 9:42 am
"Freedom Park." At least it has a catchy name.
THE government of Cambodiaâ€™s eternal prime minister, HE, has been waging an assault on public dissent since January 3rd. That was the day Cambodian security forces in the capital shot dead four garment workers who had been striking over the minimum wage.
Mr Hun Senâ€™s Cambodian Peopleâ€™s Party (CPP) has placed bans on public gatherings, driven opposition supporters from the (unfortunately named) Freedom Park, and deployed baton-wielding thugs to beat protesters and detain union leaders.
At the same time, the single-party National Assembly has passed three controversial laws in double-time, each of which will affect the functioning of the judiciary. The main opposition, Sam Rainsyâ€™s Cambodia National Rescue Party, might have acted to slow down the government with its 55 seats, but they have been busy boycotting parliament in protest against last Julyâ€™s election result. The new laws are expected to strengthen the CPPâ€™s grip on the court system. Not that it needs much strengthening; the party is routinely accused of wielding the courts as a weapon against its opponents.
Its power was on display again on Friday, May 30th, even as one court brought relief to 23 menâ€”all of them union leaders, activists or workersâ€”who had been dragged away during Januaryâ€™s bloody clashes. They had been arrested and 21 of them had been detained since January, to be charged with intentional violence and incitement.
They were finally released, on the courtâ€™s order, nearly six months after they were taken in, to the cheers of their families and other supporters.
The judgment came as bittersweet however; in the eyes of the court, all of them are held guilty. Each of them was handed a suspended prison sentence, some as long as four and half years.
â€œWe are relieved by the decision [to release them],â€ read a statement published by a coalition of more than 100 NGOs. â€œHowever, we deeply regret they were released following suspended sentences, some of them having to pay heavy fines, at the conclusion of an extremely flawed trial process.â€
The suspicion is that the government orchestrated their trials in order to detract attention from its own role in the deadly clashes. But government spokesman Phay Siphan has insisted in local media that the courts are independent. He says it is â€œnot for a party to make legal decisionsâ€.
The governmentâ€™s critics complain that the prosecution had lacked credible evidence. The cases mirrored other recent cases against high-profile agitators, which have played out the same way. A radio director, Mam Sonando, and a group of land-rights activists known as â€œthe Boeung Kak 13â€ are among those who have been imprisoned over the past two years. In those cases too, the convicted protesters were released on suspended sentences after raising an international outcry.
â€œFrom the governmentâ€™s perspective, each of these cases involves an ongoing calculationâ€”how to intimidate groups so that they don't protest or act against the government againâ€¦While at the same time [the Cambodian government is] trying to keep links to donor governments that [it] needs to fund many of their projects and activities,â€ says Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watchâ€™s Asia division.
This suggests an important role for international activism, even when it is motivated by commercial interests. In the case of the 23 detainees, it was hard to miss the statements from the international clothing brands that support Cambodiaâ€™sbiggest export industry.
Before the verdict was announced they could be heard warning the government that â€œinstabilityâ€ could hurt its billion-dollar industry.
Mr Robertson is concerned that with the passage of the three judicial laws, the governmentâ€™s influence on the court â€œwill go from bad to worseâ€.
But others are more concerned about a proposed law that would further limit trade unionsâ€™ freedom to organise. For a start, only a single union would be allowed to operate in any given workplace.
A representative of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) criticised Cambodiaâ€™s labour ministry at a forum in Phnom Penh in May. He faulted the ministry for failing to tend to gaps in the law and for presenting draft legislation that would violate the ILOâ€™s conventions on collective bargaining. To adopt the draft as a law, he said, would be a step backwards.
It is a step that looks likely to be taken very soon. It is easy enough for a government to step in any direction it likes, when parliament is in effect just one party.
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