Op-Ed: Phnom Penh Post
Analysis: Judge who will decide the fate of the CNRP is a trusted member of the CPP
The decision to preserve or to dissolve the country’s main opposition party will fall on Thursday to a judge listed as a member of the ruling CPP’s most exclusive committee, and whose close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen stretch back more than three decades.
Supreme Court President Dith Munty, who turns 76 today, is a member of the Cambodian People’s Party’s powerful permanent committee and was part of a trusted circle of advisers to the premier as the country rebuilt itself after the Khmer Rouge was ousted.
On Thursday, the court will consider a Ministry of Interior complaint seeking the complete dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the country’s largest opposition party and the only legitimate electoral threat to the CPP. While the government’s accusations that the CNRP – and its leader, Kem Sokha – colluded with the US to foment “revolution” remain unproved, numerous ruling party officials, Hun Sen included, have insisted the party’s guilt is a foregone conclusion.
As presiding judge of the hearing, Munty will be directly involved in making the final call.
But in the 19 years since the Supreme Court has been under Munty’s leadership, analysts say, it has failed to establish its independence from Hun Sen and his CPP – controversially deciding, among other things, to uphold a politically tinged incitement conviction against former opposition leader Sam Rainsy in 2011, as well as a defamation conviction against senior opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua in 2010.
“You could count on one hand the number of times a high-profile judicial decision has gone against the wishes of the country’s political leaders, which says a lot,” said Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
What’s more, she noted, it’s difficult to even criticise the court publicly thanks to legal provisions that make it a criminal offence to criticise a judicial decision with the aim of endangering “public order” or “an institution of the Kingdom of Cambodia”.
Sotheara Yoeurng, legal adviser at election watchdog Comfrel, said the Supreme Court’s reputation among the public and international community is particularly fraught when it comes to political cases.
“You can claim yourself to be neutral, but if the public knows you are a member of the ruling party, the public will not trust you,” Yoeurng said.
A former cadre of the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation, which helped overthrow Pol Pot with the help of the Vietnamese in 1979, Munty rose to prominence as deputy minister of foreign affairs under Hun Sen in the early 1980s, according to Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
In 1991, Munty was one of five Cambodian leaders who travelled to France in the premier’s entourage for the signing of the Paris Peace Accords with rival faction leaders Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Khieu Samphan.
He was appointed president of the Supreme Court in 1998 and has held the position since, in spite of laws that require judges to retire at age 60.
Despite keeping a low profile compared to other officials close to Hun Sen, Munty is listed as the number 15 official on the party’s elite permanent committee and a member of the central and standing committees on the CPP’s website.
His dual role as a party leader and an ostensibly independent judge “clearly creates a conflict of interest” for himself and the Supreme Court as a whole, said Kingsley Abbott, Southeast Asia legal adviser with the International Commission of Jurists.
“At an absolute minimum, the president should recuse himself from any role in relation to the case, as should any other judge if they have a similar position within the CPP,” Abbott said.
Indeed, Munty is not alone on the Supreme Court in his ties to the ruling party.