Impunity is the law

[SEAPA Impunity Report 2013]

In August 2013, Heng Serei Oudom became the 11th media professional since 1994 whose murder has been met with impunity in Cambodia. The two main suspects in Heng Serei Oudom’s case – military police officer An Bunheng and his wife Srim Srey Vy – were acquitted by the Ratanakkiri provincial court on 29 August, claiming that there was not enough evidence to warrant a conviction.

Rights groups countered this claim, citing evidence that had not been thoroughly investigated by the court, including a bloodstained cloth found at a restaurant owned by the suspects and fingerprints in Heng Serei Oudom’s car.

Before his death Heng Serei Oudom had been reporting for a local publication about illegal logging in the area and its links to military officials. He was found bludgeoned to death in the trunk of his abandoned car on 11September 2012, after his wife reported him missing. There was no sign of robbery, leading to the conclusion that the reporter had been murdered.

The tragic case of Heng Serei Oudom is only one example among many that demonstrates the scourge of impunity on Cambodian society. Heng Serei Oudom was the first media professional murdered for his work in Cambodia since opposition journalist Khim Sambo was gunned down in the run up to the 2008 national elections. The Phnom Penh police chief at the time was highly suspected to have had a hand in the murder, but of course no measure was taken by the Cambodian authorities to bring about justice in the case.

Censorship effect

The press is heavily restricted in Cambodia, not only as a result of such assassinations, but also through state sponsored censorship and the harassment of journalists and media outlets that report independent news.

Sok Ratha, journalist for Radio Free Asia – one of the few independent Khmer language media outlets in Cambodia – has been threatened, harassed and run down by a truck for his work reporting on illegal logging in Ratanakkiri, among other controversial topics. His harassers have never been punished. Instead unwarranted charges of incitement have been brought against Ratha.

Impunity in such cases has lead to widespread self-censorship amongst media professionals and the subsequent lack of free and fair information accessible to Cambodian citizens.

The case of the environmental activist Chut Wutty is a further example of impunity in Cambodia. In April 2012, he was shot dead while accompanying two female journalists covering an illegal logging site in the Cardamom Mountains. Chut Wutty was stopped by the military police who ordered him to hand over the memory card from his camera.

The incident that followed is subject to much controversy. The altercation ultimately resulted in the death of Chut Wutty and In Rattana, a military policeman. Both were killed by gunshot wounds. The investigation into the incident was extremely flawed and several differing accounts were reported by the government authorities, who ultimately abandoned the case because the supposed prime suspect, In Rattana, was also dead.

The two female journalists, who were detained immediately after the incident, overheard military police discussing killing them in order to prevent the incident becoming public. The two journalists were freed soon after. The lack of any serious investigation into both the death of Chut Wutty and the harassment of the two journalists is a worrying example which contributes further to the culture of impunity in Cambodia.

Targeting the powerless

Impunity in Cambodia comes as a result of the weak rule of law in the country, which touches every aspect of Cambodian life and impedes the country’s development. Deep-rooted corruption debilitates Cambodia’s justice system, as evidenced by government interference to protect its own interest. It is common for wealthy or well-connected individuals to walk free, while criminal charges are concocted in order to silence journalists, activists and other outspoken citizens voicing concerns about injustice and human rights abuses.

Land rights activist Yorm Bopha was found guilty on 27 December 2013 on bogus charges of assault. She had been at the forefront of her community’s struggle for land rights and had been warned by police on several occasions of being on a black list for imprisonment. It had been Yorm Bopha who was beaten by police on numerous occasions at protests while her aggressors went unpunished. Yorm Bopha was arbitrarily imprisoned for speaking her mind. Bopha has filed her second appeal against the guilty verdict and resulting two-year imprisonment; the Cambodian Supreme Court will decide her fate on 22 November 2013. [Update: Please follow think link for a news item on the Supreme Court decision.]

Cambodian security forces regularly use disproportionate force to silence protesters. In the aftermath of an opposition demonstration against the heavily contested July 2013 national elections, which saw the ruling party retain power, Mao Sok Chan was shot dead by military police fire on a bridge exiting the city. State security forces had forced the city to a virtual standstill with barbed wire barriers on main thoroughfares. That night, these barriers caused a lengthy traffic jams on Monivong bridge, connecting the city center it its outskirts. A clash broke out between angry commuters and security forces, trapping both protesters and ordinary citizens travelling to and from work. In response, security forces opened fire on the crowd, injuring several and killing innocent bystander Mao Sok Chan, who was returning home from work in Phnom Penh.

There has been no investigation into the killing of Mao Sok Chan and to this day no security forces have ever been held to account in Cambodia for the misuse of force against demonstrators. Cambodian security forces must be correctly trained in international standards of conduct and must be made acutely aware that it is their responsibility, as agents of the state, to respect peaceful demonstrations, not to impede them by resorting to violence.

Protecting the powerful

Most recently in Cambodia, in November 2013, the governor of Bavet city, Chhouk Bandith had his conviction upheld for shooting at a group of garment workers who were protesting outside his factory. Bandith fired his gun directly at the protesters, seriously injuring three female workers. Despite evidence of this wilful act , Bandith was only charged with unintentional violence and was not held in pre-trial detention, but allowed to walk free.

Initially the charges against Bandith were dropped but due to public outcry, the case was reopened and he was eventually found guilty in absentia and sentenced to 18 months in prison in June this year. Despite filing an appeal, the police have yet to apprehend the governor, who has not spent one day in prison for his crime. The victims of the shooting and human rights groups had hoped that the appeals court would charge Bandith with a more serious offense and hand down a more serious, and fitting punishment. However the upholding of the sentence and the failure of the authorities to locate or to even attempt to locate Bandith, demonstrates that that the conviction is a token move to appease public opinion, rather than to deliver any real justice.

The culture of impunity that is rife in Cambodia is cumbersome hurdle to the full establishment of democracy in the country. Impunity is inherently linked to the government’s attempt to stifle free speech in the country, as well as the infallibility of the status quo and the lack of separation of powers between the government and the judiciary.

There has been a glimmer of hope with recent election results showing considerable gains for the opposition, who won the overwhelming support of the Cambodian youth. Opposition supporters did not practice self-censorship when it came to this year’s election and the increasing use of the internet has allowed independent information to reach more of the country’s population. There is a long way to go however, and for now, the desperate pleas of Heng Serei Oudom’s wife after the acquittal of her husband’s suspected killers, sum up the current situation in the country: “Please help me. There is no law in Cambodia.”

[This report was written by the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights]