Three persons shot – and the rule of law

Official voices had frequently commented, saying that everybody should be patient and not worry – as things go according to the law. So I also waited, expecting thee would be a final, clarifying action by the authorities for which so many people are waiting. Instead of waiting further, I write a mid term (?) report.

On 5 March, two weeks after the shooting and almost as long as the time that had passed since the Minister of the Interior said that the suspect had been identified, the spokesperson of the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan still appealed to be patient: “We have to go with due process.”

But what is this “due process” in a society governed by the rule of law? It is not just what is written on paper and announced by some authorities – “the rule of law refers to a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated.”

United Nations – Rule of Law – Website & Document Repository

Promoting the rule of law at the national and international levels is at the heart of the United Nations’ mission. Establishing respect for the rule of law is fundamental to achieving a durable peace in the aftermath of conflict, to the effective protection of human rights, and to sustained economic progress and development. The principle that everyone – from the individual right up to the State itself – is accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, is a fundamental concept which drives much of the United Nations work.

The principle of the rule of law embedded in the Charter of the United Nations encompasses elements relevant to the conduct of State to State relations. The main United Nations organs, including the General Assembly and the Security Council, have essential roles in this regard, which are derived from and require action in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.

“For the United Nations, the rule of law refers to a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires, as well, measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.”

Report of the Secretary-General on the Rule of Law and Transitional Justice in Conflict and Post-Conflict Societies (S/2004/616)

What does all that mean when one contemplates the following events?

  • 20.2.2012 About 6,000 workers demonstrated at a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Svay Rieng, and demanded payments beyond the monthly minimum wage of US$61, asking for additional remuneration for food and transport. When the demonstration turned violent, three women were wounded, hit by bullets. One of them was hit in the back, with the bullet piercing her lung.
  • 29.2.2012 Representatives of Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam Ath visited the shooting victims in hospital, offered approx. $500 each, and requested to thumbprint – sign – documents promising not to file legal complaints against the suspected shooter. One of the wounded woman said, “I don’t want to file a complaint because I don’t want to have problems anymore.”- There were also other voices: “It is attempted murder… If the court does not issue an arrest warrant, the people will lose confidence in the court system.”
  • 1.3.2012 Another Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng, stated that the city governor of Bavet, Chhuk Bundith, is a suspect in the shooting, and the Ministry of Interior had known the identity of the shooter for more than one week already. “To arrest the suspect, it is not for the Interior Ministry to do. It is for the court to authorize.”
  • 2.3.2012 The daily newspaper Koh Santepheap published a photo, with one person raising a handgun, and several armed police and military police accompanying him, at the SEZ. The photographer described also where the group in the picture moved around, but he kept his anonymity, claiming to be afraid of bad consequences. – The same photographer who had given detailed descriptions about the circumstances, where and when he had taken the picture, later claimed that the picture was several years old, depicting another gun wielding incident related to land conflicts in 2007.
  • 2.3.2012 There were also reports that the suspect had been arrested while trying to cross into Vietnam. The spokesperson of the Council of Ministers said he had also heard about the arrest – but nobody would later confirm the veracity of these rumors.
  • 5.3.2012 It was reported that the Svay Rieng Prosecutor Hing Bunchea had said that any decision about the suspect would depend on an investigating judge. “When I finish my review of the case file I will send it to the investigating judge, but I do not yet know when.”
  • 5.3.2012 Finally, the suspect was summoned to appear in court for questioning, on 16 March 2012. An arrest warrant had not been issued, said provincial Prosecutor Hing Bunchea, as he is “following procedures.”
  • 9.3.2012 It was reported that by an order of the Prime Minister, the suspect had been removed from the position of Bavet city governor. “The government transferred Chhuk Bundith to be a provincial officer so that the court is able to summon him for questioning…”
  • 9.3.2012 Some of the largest buyers of Cambodian export products expressed their concern about the slow progress of taking action in response to the shootings in the SEZ where three workers had been victimized, in a letter addressed to Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh, calling “to conduct a full and transparent investigation… and hold those responsible for injuring the workers accountable.” It is estimated that much more than half of the foreign exchange earnings of Cambodia are produced by the workers in the garment industry; the buyers include American Eagle Outfitters, Colombia, H&M, Puma, and others.
  • 12.3.2012 Neither any government agency nor the Garment Manufacturer’s Association in Cambodia did respond to solicitations by the media to provide a position in response to the letter from the major buyers.
  • 15.3.2012 Svay Rieng Court Prosecutor Hing Bunchea reportedly told The Cambodia Daily that the suspect had admitted to have discharged his gun into the air.
  • 17.3.2012 Subsequently, the prosecutor denied this report as wrong, claiming that the suspect had only taken and shown his gun, but he did not remember whether he actually fired the gun. It remains a mystery how the three women were hit by bullets. The prosecutor will therefore summon the victims wounded by the shooting for questioning “sometime later this month.”

Due process applied, according to the rule of law, as described in the UN document described above? There has to be “legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness and procedural and legal transparency.”

During these days, Moen Tola, an officer of the Cambodian human rights organization LICADHO, reminded the public about the case of the Cambodian UN employee Seng Kunakar, who had been accused of printing out seven or eight pages of text, critical of the Cambodian government, from an – at that time – openly accessible website in 2010, and he had shared these printouts which a small number of friends. In less than 48 hours over a weekend – when courts normally are not in session – he was arrested, convicted, and jailed.


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