Two women who were jailed last week for allegedly breaching a court order related to an ongoing land dispute in Kompong Speu province were freed on Monday night—an hour after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for their release on his Facebook page.
Government officials were quick to defend the premier’s order as an opinion that the court was free to ignore, but critics said the move only served to illustrate Mr. Hun Sen’s expansive powers, further compromising the independence of the judiciary.
You Ran, 51, and Ith Rom, 55, representatives of a community of more than 160 families, have been at the fore of a fight to hold on to about 1,000 hectares of land in Kompong Speu’s Phnom Sruoch district. The pair appeared at the provincial court for questioning on Friday over a complaint filed in 2014 by Chea Kum, who also claims ownership of the land.
Judge Tuon Putheara promptly ordered their arrest and detention at the provincial prison, allegedly for failing to heed a previous summons.
“It is very disappointing that the Kompong Speu Provincial Court detained two representatives of the people,” Mr. Hun Sen wrote on his Facebook page shortly after 9 p.m. on Monday. “I order the provincial governor to work with the court overnight in order to bail them out.”
“My two sons Hun Manith and Hun Many are traveling to Kompong Speu province to help people in this case,” he added. “I hope that the prosecutor will allow both people to stay outside the prison. If you do not trust them, please detain my sons instead of them.”
Court officials could not be reached on Tuesday. Ung Somrith, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, said the women were set free between 10 and 11 p.m. on Monday.
“Just after Samdech Hun Sen posted on his Facebook, the deputy prosecutor took action and decided to release the two women,” he said.
Speaking from her home on Tuesday, Ms. Ran said she was glad to be free again, but should have never been imprisoned in the first place.
“I am happy that Samdech intervened to release us,” she said. “We shouldn’t have been detained because…the court conspired with authorities to let a businessperson take our land and arrest us.”
The prime minister’s order to release the women seemed to contradict his professed inability to intervene in court cases. Days after the issue of political prisoners was raised during a meeting between Mr. Hun Sen and U.S. President Barack Obama in November 2012, the prime minister used a speech to explain the limits of his power.
“There were suggestions that I intervene to release prisoners. If I did so, I would be what you have alleged,” he said at the time, addressing unnamed critics.
“You alleged that I was in control of the court, an institution that has its own independence; that would be asking me to commit against the law,” he said.
“Asking me to release this or that prisoner, but how can I do that, since the court is independent? We commit crimes, the court convicts. Nobody is above the law.”
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin insisted on Tuesday that the Kompong Speu court had come to its own decision to release the women, and that Mr. Hun Sen had the right to express his opinions about the case.
“In fact, it’s just an opinion from Samdech Prime Minister—or a concern—it’s not an order,” he said.
“There’s no law to say the prime minister having an opinion is wrong, because it is up to the court to decide; it’s not the right of the prime minister. If the prime minister directs the court, that’s against the law.”
Mr. Malin conceded, however, that the opinions of Mr. Hun Sen held more weight than those of the average citizen.
“The court worked…faster because the prime minister’s opinion is more pressing than other—normal people’s—opinions,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the notion that the courts might defy an order from the prime minister was nonsense.
“There is no doubt that Hun Sen can get whatever he wants, whenever he wants from Cambodia’s pliable courts, as many rights activists and opposition politicians have learned after being hauled into court on trumped up charges,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.
“At the end of the day, no judge in Cambodia would dare to question a direct order from Hun Sen, that’s just the political reality,” he said.
“What it shows is the so-called independence of the Cambodian judiciary is a sham and protestations by Hun Sen and other CPP officials about preserving judicial independence is a charade.”
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