(New York, August 9, 2005) -- The conviction of opposition parliamentarian Cheam Channy on charges of forming a "secret army" is a blatant attempt to eliminate the political opposition, Human Rights Watch said today.
Channy's co-defendant, SRP activist Khom Piseth, was convicted in absentia of the same charges and received a five-year prison sentence. Khom Piseth, who fled Cambodia in 2004 to escape arrest, has been granted refugee status and resettled along with his family in a European country.
"Cheam Channy's conviction before a military court was not only grossly unfair, but poses a serious threat to Cambodia's democracy," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "A democracy without a political opposition is effectively a dictatorship."
Human Rights Watch said that the trial judge, Military Court President Ney Thol, conducted the trial in a visibly biased manner and blatantly prevented Channy's lawyers from presenting a proper defense.
The judge prohibited Channy's lawyers from calling witnesses to testify on his behalf and cross-examining all of the prosecution witnesses. Although the prosecution accused Channy of creating illegal "armed forces," no evidence was presented in court that anyone connected to the SRPís Committee No. 14 had weapons or had plotted or committed any act of violence.
"The trial was a complete sham," said Adams. "Once again Cambodia's politicized judiciary has been used as a tool to silence the opposition."
In July 2004, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused members of Committee No. 14 of establishing a militant armed force. The SRP had made no effort to conceal the existence of Committee No. 14, a body of SRP activists that monitored national defense, veterans' affairs, demobilization and public security. Chaired by Cheam Channy, the committee was modeled after "shadow ministries" created by opposition parties around the world to monitor the performance of government ministries. The SRP had similar committees for other areas, such as education, agriculture and public works.
In July 2004, Hun Sen publicly accused Channy and other SRP members of forming an illegal secret army. In a closed session on February 3, 2005, the National Assembly voted to lift the parliamentary immunity of Sam Rainsy, along with SRP legislators Channy and Chea Poch, enabling the three parliamentarians to be prosecuted. Channy was arrested a few hours later and sent to the Military Prison in Phnom Penh, where he has been detained since. Rainsy and Poch immediately fled the country before arrest warrants were issued.
The Military Court charged Channy with organized crime and fraud under Cambodia's 1992 Criminal Code. The prosecution also cited his alleged violation of a provision of the 1997 Law on Political Parties which prohibits political parties from organizing armed forces.
Under Cambodian law, the mandate of the Military Court covers only military offenses committed by currently serving military personnel. As a civilian charged with non-military offenses, Channy is being unlawfully and arbitrarily detained and prosecuted by the military court, Human Rights Watch said; nor should he be detained in a military prison.
"This trial shows the extent of the government's vice-like grip over the Cambodian judiciary," said Adams. "In political cases, the courts are simply unable or unwilling to hold anything resembling a fair trial, and to judge cases on their facts."
The trial of Cheam Channy comes on the heels of another controversial trial, in which two men were convicted on August 1 on charges of murdering Cambodian union leader Chea Vichea without any eyewitness testimony or forensic evidence.
"These two trials, within a week of each other, bode extremely badly for the upcoming Khmer Rouge tribunal, in which Cambodian judges will play a key role alongside foreign ones," said Adams. "The current state of the judiciary simply does not justify any faith that Cambodian judges involved in the Khmer Rouge tribunal will be able to act professionally and independently of the government."
History of Attacks on the Opposition
Outspoken opposition leader Sam Rainsy and members of Cambodia's ruling coalition government have had a history of fractious relations. Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy were founding members of the royalist party, Funcinpec. Rainsy was named Minister of Finance by Ranariddh after the Funcinpec victory in the 1993 U.N.-sponsored election, but was sacked in 1994. In June 1995, Rainsy was expelled from the National Assembly after Ranariddh had him removed from the party. Rainsy subsequently established his own opposition party, now called the SRP. Rainsy and Ranariddh formed an alliance against the ruling Cambodia People's Party (CPP) for both the 1998 and 2003 elections, but in each case Ranariddh eventually joined a coalition government with Hun Sen and Rainsy remained in opposition.
Rainsy has been subject to constant threats of violence and arrest. The most extreme attack occurred on March 30, 1997, when a peaceful rally led by Rainsy against judicial corruption was attacked by grenade throwers, leaving at least 16 dead and 150 injured. Rainsy was the clear target of the attack but survived when his bodyguards fell on top of him. Hun Sen's bodyguard unit was present at the rally dressed in full riot gear, something not previously done, suggesting they expected the attack. United Nations and U.S. FBI investigations established that Hun Sen's bodyguards allowed the grenade throwers to pass through their lines, but later stopped at gunpoint individuals who attempted to pursue them.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the CPP, has frequently called for Rainsy to be arrested, including after the 1997 grenade attack. He also staged a bloody coup against Ranariddh, his co-prime minister, in July 1997. More than 100 Funcinpec members were extra-judicially executed by Hun Sen's forces, many found bound and blindfolded. Ranariddh fled into exile for nine months and was convicted in absentia in a show trial before the National Military Court. He was pardoned in a political deal paving the way for national elections in July 1998 that resulted in the formation of a coalition government by the CPP and Funcinpec.
In 2003, Funcinpec again entered into a power-sharing agreement with the CPP after inconclusive national elections, in which no one party received the required two-thirds majority needed to form a new government. Within days of parliamentary approval of the new coalition government in July 2004, Hun Sen accused members of SRP's Committee No. 14 of establishing a secret army.