PHNOM PENH — The U.N.’s specially appointed researcher on human rights in Cambodia expressed concern Thursday over the country’s use of pre-trial detention and its failure to conduct trials speedily.
Speaking at a news conference at the end of an 11-day mission, Rhona Smith specifically expressed concern about people arrested in politically linked cases, including Kem Sokha, the former leader of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
Kem Sokha was freed on bail in September after being jailed without trial for a year on a treason charge, but the conditions of his release amount to a form of house arrest.
Smith said a judge denied her request to meet Kem Sokha, and she called for him to be quickly brought to trial or released.
“Access to justice also requires speedy trials and I am concerned at the time taken to conduct trials and the significant number of people in pre-trial detention,” Smith said in a statement. “I repeat my recommendations to use pre-trial detention only when absolutely necessary in accordance with Cambodia criminal procedure code; to carefully document the use of pre-trial detention; and to regularly review the ongoing need in each case.”
Smith’s comments about Cambodia were unusually mild. U.N. human rights investigators are typically highly critical of Cambodia’s restrictive political environment and harassment of critics and opponents. She told reporters that for her latest mission in Cambodia, she chose to focus on “the localization of the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals,” which means broadly addressing how human rights policies can contribute to a nation’s overall social and economic development.
Cambodia was harshly criticized by many rights groups and Western nations for holding a general election in July that they judged unfair and undemocratic. The election extended the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen into a fourth decade.
The only credible opposition force, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was disbanded last year by the courts in a move seen as politically motivated. The 19 other parties that contested the election were seen as either having trivial support or being promoted by the ruling party to foster the illusion of democratic choice.
The government had already cracked down on the opposition last year as the ruling party’s prospects for the general election were looking shaky. The opposition had made a strong showing in 2017 local elections, building on its surprisingly strong challenge in the 2013 general election.
Kem Sokha was arrested in September last year on the basis of years-old videos showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups. His party denied the treason allegation, calling it politically motivated.