(New York) – The Cambodian authorities have no credible evidence and should drop the case against 13 people facing politically motivated charges of planning to overthrow the government, Human Rights Watch said today. A verdict in the case, which was filed months before the July 2013 national elections, is scheduled for April 11, 2014.
Cambodia’s donors should call on Prime Minister Hun Sen to make a public commitment to end the use of Cambodia’s law enforcement agencies and courts for political purposes.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen announced before last July’s elections that a plot to violently overthrow the government had been broken up, seemingly intending to tar the opposition with the brush of violent extremism,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The evidence presented in court makes clear this plot was concocted and that the charges should be dropped.”
On February 28, the Phnom Penh court held a one-day trial for 13 members of the Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF) who had been charged with “opposing the nation” by “treacherously plotting” to conduct insurrectionary attacks liable to endanger Cambodia’s state institutions or violate its national integrity. Yet during the trial no evidence of a crime committed by any of the accused was presented in the trial that took place in a Phnom Penh court on February 28.
Seven of the defendants – Thach Kong Phuong, Yin Yav (known as Danh Dao), Suon Thol, Yan Yoeup, Suong Sithikun, Khem Ma, and Yân Kimsrun – appeared at the trial and remain in custody. The other six defendants were tried in absentia, including the KNLF’s chairman, Sam Serey, known as Yan Yiep, a resettled Cambodian refugee who resides in Denmark.
All were indicted in August 2013 for alleged activities leading up to the formation of the KNLF at a ceremony in Thailand on December 12, 2012.
In March 2013, Thai police accompanied by Cambodian government personnel arrested the seven men now in custody. They also confiscated thousands of documents and computer files, including leaflets and KNLF archives. Three were Buddhist monks at the time of their arrest, one of whom had been in Bangkok for many years working with an organization providing AIDS education among the Cambodian diaspora. The seven were transported to the Cambodian border and turned over to Cambodian security personnel.On May 16, 2013, while the detainees were still under investigation, Hun Sen spoke about the KNLF case at a campaign rally for his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in Prey Veng province. He said that “armed rebels” and “terrorists” were hiding within the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). These included organizers of the KNLF, whom he alleged had been “training an armed force” in Thailand. He warned that more arrests of such persons inside the CNRP could follow. The speech coincided with the CPP’s dissemination of a campaign manual to party activists that falsely accused some CNRP members of involvement with a “terrorist” coup attempt in 2000.
At the February 28 hearing, the prosecution described leaflets distributed by the KNLF in Cambodia as “opposing the government,” but did not argue that they specifically advocated armed insurrection. The prosecution put a KNLF organizational chart and membership list into evidence, but neither indicated the KNLF had an armed wing. Human Rights Watch’s own review of the organization’s website has found no calls for violence.
The prosecution produced only two pieces of evidence purporting to show plans to use violence. One was the written record of a judicial police interview of Yin Yav, conducted without the presence of a lawyer in contravention of Cambodian law and international standards. According to the record, the then Buddhist monk Thach Kong Phuong spoke to Yin Yav in late 2011 about procuring weapons to form an army to overthrow the Cambodian and – later – Vietnamese governments. In court, Yin Yav repudiated this statement, alleging it was produced under coercion and out of fear of police mistreatment. A police officer who testified denied this, but the trial judges did not make any further attempt to ascertain the veracity of Yin Yan’s claims, as is required by international standards when such allegations are made.
The second piece of evidence was a photograph taken at a Buddhist pagoda in Thailand of Yân Kimsrun in military-style garb emblazoned with Thai and Turkish flags. In court he said the outfit was given to him to wear by a Thai living at the pagoda.
The trial was held at a time when the CNRP was challenging the results of the 2013 election, which the CPP claims to have won but independent observers have concluded was characterized by large-scale irregularities. The CNRP has demanded a new election, to which CPP has recently responded by again publicly branding CNRP leader Sam Rainsy as a leader of “insurrectionary rebels” and “terrorists.”
“The conviction of any of these 13 defendants will not be proof of guilt but rather of Hun Sen’s control over Cambodia’s courts to weaken the opposition with false accusations,” Adams said. “No one should be sentenced to prison to serve Hun Sen’s political agenda.”