A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Rights workers, two others ‘bribed witness’, court says; UN holds firm

People protest the detention of human rights workers yesterday in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. Hong Menea

Rights workers, two others ‘bribed witness’, court says; UN holds firm
Tue, 3 May 2016 ppp
Lay Samean and Ananth Baliga

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday sent four Adhoc staffers to Prey Sar prison and an election official to Phnom Penh’s PJ correctional facility after charging them with bribing a witness in the scandal surrounding CNRP acting president Kem Sokha and an alleged mistress.

The four Adhoc staffers – Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, Nay Vanda and Lem Mony – were charged by investigating judge Theam Chanpiseth for bribing a witness under Article 548 of the Criminal Code. Ny Chakrya, a former Adhoc official and National Election Committee deputy secretary-general, and Sally Soen, an employee with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), were charged as accomplices under articles 29 and 548.

Soen, who the UN says is protected by immunity, has yet to appear in court and was charged in absentia. Chanpiseth did not confirm if there were plans to arrest him.

“I cannot confirm it because we are continuing the procedures,” the judge said.

A visibly choked up Kea Sophal, one of the five lawyers representing Adhoc staffers, would only confirm that her clients had been sent to prison, but Sam Sokong, defence lawyer for Chakrya, slammed the charges against his client as unjustifiable.

“The charge is baseless, and I would request the court to drop the charge against my client,” Sokong said, adding that he would file for bail later this week. “I cannot accept the charge.”

The five were detained by the Anti-Corruption Unit on Thursday after two days of questioning at the watchdog’s offices.

Two additional days of interrogation followed at court. Their charges stem from allegations made by Sokha’s alleged mistress and salon worker Khom Chandaraty, who claims they asked her to lie about her relationship with Sokha.

Ny Sokha (centre), head of monitoring for Adhoc, is driven out of Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday afternoon after being charged for bribing a witness.
Ny Sokha (centre), head of monitoring for Adhoc, is driven out of Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday afternoon after being charged for bribing a witness. Pha Lina

While Adhoc staffers provided Chandaraty with legal and financial assistance when she came to the rights group for help last month, the exact nature of Chakrya’s and Soen’s involvement remains unclear.

Chiming in on the case’s proceedings, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday said that UN officials would not be afforded immunity if found guilty of committing a crime.

But Wan-Hea Lee, OHCHR’s representative in Cambodia, said their stance was based on a straightforward interpretation of the Convention on Privileges and Immunities of the UN, which accords UN staffers immunity arising from actions taken during the course of their work.

“The UN has sent a formal response to this effect to the royal government, and we await a response,” she said.

With regards to yesterday’s court proceedings, Lee said the case was an “important test of judicial integrity and independence”, adding that the principle of presumption of innocence was under question, given the way the case had been handled so far.

“My office will be following these cases closely and hopes to see proceedings fully respect fair trial rights standards,” Lee added.

Referring to threats made by both ACU boss Om Yentieng and Prime Minister Hun Sen to arrest UN staffers despite their immunity, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the threat shows the government’s willfully lawless approach to the entire case.

“If Cambodia arrests him despite that immunity, it will cause a full-blown crisis in relations between Cambodia and the UN that will likely not end well for Phnom Penh’s already-diminished standing in the international community,” he said.

Immediately following the detention of the five, a joint statement, released by more than 50 rights groups and NGOs, condemned the charges and demanded the release of the five on bail, as well as an “end to executive interference in the judiciary”.

“The case is a farcical use of both the criminal justice system and state institutions as tools to intimidate, criminalise and punish the legitimate activities of human rights defenders and civil society,” the statement reads.

Naly Pilorge, director at rights group Licadho, called the charges “blatantly politically motivated” and showed that the “government’s ultimate aim is total control ahead of the upcoming elections”.

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