UPDATE – Rights workers charged with bribery in Cambodia scandal


By Lauren Crothers

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AA) – A Cambodian court has charged an election official and five human rights workers, including a United Nations staffer, over the parts they played in assisting the mistress of the deputy opposition leader.

The charges Monday were immediately condemned as “politically motivated” and “farcical” by a consortium of 59 rights and community groups.

“The targeting of these individuals, five of whom were sent to pre-trial detention today, is the latest escalation in a far-reaching government assault on civil society ahead of upcoming local and national elections,” said the statement, disseminated by rights group Licadho.

It added that the legal action at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court was “a clear reprisal for support provided by rights workers in a politically-sensitive case”.

The prosecutor issued charges of bribery against four staff members from rights group Adhoc, while the UN worker and a member of the National Election Committee were charged with being accomplices.

An investigating judge will determine if the charges — which carry prison sentences of between five and 10 years in prison — should proceed to trial.

The allegations were originally brought against the six by a woman named Khom Chandaraty, who had sought legal assistance after it emerged that she was involved in an extramarital affair with Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Their affair became public after tapes of a conversation between the two were leaked.

Sokha is now being investigated by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) over claims he made about buying properties in the calls.

“In the context of such support, Adhoc provided [Chandaraty] with $204 to cover food and transport costs, including to attend questioning by judicial authorities,” said Monday’s statement.

“This legitimate expenditure of a small sum of money to cover basic expenses of a client is now grotesquely being portrayed by the ACU as bribery and corruption,” it added.

Chandaraty had told the authorities she was urged to lie by those assisting her.

The UN staffer, Soen Sally, has not been detained, and a spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia said a formal response had been sent to Cambodia’s government.

“UN officials have immunity from legal processes arising from their actions undertaken in the line of duty,” Christine Pickering said by email. “The UN seeks to find together with the Royal Government a mutually agreeable way to cooperate with the proceedings.”

Political analyst Ou Virak told Anadolu Agency that he fears the latest charges are a harbinger for worse to come.

“It all depends on the evidence… and I don’t think a lot of people have confidence in the court,” he said. “I don’t believe they [the charged] have done anything illegal and wrong.”

Virak himself has been summonsed to appear May 12 to be questioned over allegations that he defamed the ruling Cambodian People’s Party when he said it stood to benefit from the scandal.

Virak said he believes civil society is under threat in the lead up to the 2017/2018 election season, but worries “how wide the net will be cast”.

He said he plans to attend court May 12 to defend himself.