According to the World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index, Cambodia is ranked 125 out of 126, indicating that Cambodia is failing under all eight factors used to evaluate a country.
This ranking is unequivocally rejected by Cambodian government officials who argue that it is based on political biases rather than scientific and neutral factors.
Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report also indicates a negative trend in civil and political rights for Cambodia and classifies the country as “not free”.
In efforts to combat these perceptions, Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice with international partners has begun discussions to reform their legal system, focusing on access to legal aid for those who cannot afford legal representation.
Real reform will require deeper changes, including an end to the misuse of the criminal proceedings against human rights advocates.
The rule of law is dependent upon an independent justice sector that does not pursue criminal charges just to curry favour with the ruling party and judges who dismiss cases brought without meaningful evidence of criminal activity.
The ultimate test, therefore, of whether Cambodia is committed to the rule of law will be the dismissal of baseless charges brought against human rights lawyers and defenders, such as the “Adhoc 5”.
Furthermore, officials should ensure that lawyers are protected against frivolous and fabricated charges brought in retaliation for their legal work, and that all the rule of law and fair trial protections found within the Cambodian Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights are observed and granted to all Cambodian citizens.
The Adhoc 5 case was brought against current and former senior members and lawyers of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (“Adhoc”) who were convicted of bribing a witness.
According Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists, the charges, pre-trial detention, and trial of these five individuals violated their fundamental human rights and fair trial rights.
The accused, who have been vocal critics of the policies that limit the human rights of Cambodian citizens, were not brought to trial for over two years and spent more than a year of that time in arbitrary detention.
The bribery charges and prolonged pretrial detention were attempts to disrupt and discredit Adhoc’s legitimate human rights legal work and prevented Adhoc’s former head of Human Rights Section and the current Deputy Secretary-General of the National Election Committee from fulfilling his mandate as a non-partisan auditor of electoral irregularities during the June 2017 commune council elections.
Adhoc is the type of civil society organisation that provides legal access and rights training to marginalised communities throughout Cambodia, and should be protected and supported by the government. These types of organisations advocate, protect, and fight for human rights for all.
There have been reports that the two-day trial of the Adhoc 5 that took place over two years after their initial charges violated their right to examine witnesses, right to a speedy trial, and right to remain silent.
Furthermore, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) found that the Adhoc 5’s pre-trial detention for over a year was arbitrary and violated their fundamental rights.
This sort of judicial harassment of human rights lawyers and defenders who are exercising their fundamental rights is exactly the sort of rule of law violation that continues to place Cambodia at the bottom of the WJP’s Rule of Law Index.
If the Cambodian government truly wants to change its behaviour and standing, it must do more than reform its laws and open legal aid centres.
It needs to change its behaviour and stance towards human rights organisations and defenders by protecting and supporting them rather than charging them with frivolous criminal charges that ensure that their energy and resources are focused on defending themselves rather than advocating and protecting fundamental rights.
Such charges should be reviewed and dismissed rather than taken to trial, and if there is sufficient evidence to go to trial, all fair trial rights including, right to a speedy trial, right to examine witnesses, and right to remain silent must be protected.
The Government of Cambodia can change its standing and show its commitment to the rule of law by respecting its own laws and international legal obligations, vacating charges against the Adhoc 5, and respecting the rights of human rights defenders and lawyers to exercise their right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly rather than judicially harassing them.
Monika Mehta is a US attorney who has monitored trials and provided pro bono assistance to human rights defenders in Cambodia and throughout South and Southeast Asia. The views expressed are her own.