Will Cambodia’s Rulers Be Dragged to Court?

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Will Cambodia’s Rulers Be Dragged to Court?

The murder of a government critic may be added to the regime’s growing list of transgressions.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has been desperately slow in the making. But it has scored some victories, more recently with the trial of jihadist Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, who pleaded guilty to destroying religious monuments in the ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali.

His plea, and an apology, will prove pivotal in bringing other leaders of the Daesh, as the so called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is often known, into the international court system.

The ICC’s mandate also appears to be widening, pushed largely by ambitious lawyers and desperate people who are increasingly seeing the courts in The Hague as an avenue to have their grievances addressed, when ignored by the authorities at home.

Now, amid frustration by advocates pushing the Cambodian government to seriously and independently investigate the killing of well-known independent analyst Kem Ley, lawyers are planning to register his case with the ICC.

Richard Rogers, a partner at the London-based law firm Global Diligence, wants to expand a case already lodged with the ICC alleging crimes against humanity by Cambodia’s “ruling elite” to include Kem Ley, arguing there was sufficient evidence to suggest his death was a politically motivated killing.

Kem Ley was shot twice from behind on July 10 in broad daylight while inside a convenience store where he regularly went for a morning cup of coffee. Perhaps 250,000 turned out for his funeral and even more lined the highways for a procession which travelled 90 kilometers to his home village.

He was killed three days after London-based Global Witness released a report detailing the wealth held by the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen, which Kem Ley said was solid grounds for further investigations. The report valued the family’s basic corporate assets at $200 million although, their broader wealth was considered much higher.

“This has all the hallmarks of a politically motivated assassination, but needs further investigation. It fits into the second category of crimes outlined in my original brief two years ago,” Rogers said, in regards to the ICC examination of Cambodia’s ruling elite.

His second category encompasses incidences where “the State’s legal and security systems have been used to quell resistance, often violently, in order to promote the private and personal interests of the Ruling Elite.”

The legal move came as the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, said there were concerns about the escalating atmosphere of intimidation of opposition politicians, their supporters, civil society, and peaceful demonstrators in Cambodia.

“Over the past few days, a strong show of force was conducted by the armed forces at the headquarters of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

“This, combined with an increase in rhetoric by high-level army officials, who have vowed to defend the ruling party against political opposition, is deeply worrying.”

The CNRP has faced a barrage of prosecutions through the courts since party leader Sam Rainsy fled into exile last year after being threatened with jail over a defamation suit.

Acting CNRP President Kem Sokha is also facing charges over his refusal to appear as a witness in another case – against himself and two members of his party – for alleged perjury and prostitution.

Meanwhile another 29 supporters and members of the opposition have faced legal action, with 14 convicted and serving heavy sentences amid speculation the government is initiating a crackdown on dissent to position itself ahead of commune elections next year and general elections in 2018.

The CNRP made significant ground on the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) at the 2013 ballot with Hun Sen finding it difficult to win over support from the burgeoning youth vote. Sixty-five percent of this country’s population is under the age of 35.

A stagnating economy and increasing anger over corruption, a yawning wealth gap, and land grabbing have also furnished the opposition with plenty of political ammunition leading into the next poll in 2018.

And the addition of Kem Ley’s case to a potential ICC investigation will only add to the negative perceptions already swirling around Hun Sen, his family and his government, and make the task of re-election in two years time even harder.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt