Monday, July 15, 2013

Hor Namhong Says Rainsy’s Pardon Ensures Fair Election

The Cambodia Daily
By and - July 15, 2013 

In the face of widespread criticism that the July 28 national ballot will fail to meet basic standards for democratic elections, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong said on Saturday that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s decision to pardon opposition leader Sam Rainsy would guarantee a fair vote.

But reacting to the pardon, the U.S. Embassy and local election monitors said Mr. Rainsy’s return would not by itself ensure fair elections due to ongoing concerns such as flaws to the national voter list and equal access to the media.

Analysts also said the decision by Mr. Hun Sen to acquit Mr. Rainsy of his crimes only served to expose the prime minister’s vast authority over the judiciary and the political nature of the opposition leader’s convictions in the first place.

Following a meeting at the Foreign Affairs Ministry with U.S. Embassy Charge d’Affaires Jeff Daigle, Mr. Namhong said that Mr. Hun Sen’s request to pardon the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was not influenced by calls from foreign donors for his return.

“The CPP’s policy—the prime minister’s policy—typically strives to create unity and reconciliation, now there is a pardon for His Excellency Sam Rainsy in order to create free and fair elections and [strengthen] democracy,” Mr. Namhong said.

“[T]his is not the first time that the prime minister has asked the king to pardon Sam Rainsy,” he added.
Mr. Rainsy was last granted a royal pardon at the behest of Mr. Hun Sen in 2006, after he spent more than a year outside the country in order to avoid an 18-month prison sentence on a conviction of defaming Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who he said accepted bribes to join a coalition government with the CPP, and Mr. Hun Sen, who he accused of being behind the 1997 grenade attacks that killed about a dozen people at an opposition rally.

But whereas Mr. Rainsy wrote a public letter of apology to Mr. Hun Sen prior to the last time he was pardoned, the opposition leader made no such gesture this time.

“It seems that there was no concession on the part of Sam Rainsy,” said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay. “I think that for the opposition and for Sam Rainsy himself, they should feel like this is a triumph. And it would be legitimate for Sam Rainsy to crow a bit and say that he is indomitable,” he added.

Mr. Rainsy’s July 6 declaration—posted in a video on his Facebook page—that he would return to Cambodia prior to elections regardless of his criminal status forced Mr. Hun Sen to decide between granting Mr. Rainsy amnesty or making him a cause celebre, said Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

“If Sam Rainsy came back and if the government put Sam Rainsy in jail, a rally would move within the [CNRP] campaign to support the freedom of Sam Rainsy and this movement could get bigger and bigger. So the government had to decide, what should they do?” Mr. Puthea said, noting that the timing of Mr. Rainsy’s announcement put Mr. Hen Sen in a particularly tight bind.

“We can see the result comes from a game of politics. The end of the game is that Sam Rainsy can come back to Cambodia this time,” he added.

Regardless of why Mr. Hun Sen—with King Sihamoni’s blessing—has cleared the way for Mr. Rainsy’s return, the decision by the prime minister has only exposed how subservient the court system has become to the government, according to Thun Saray, chairman of the board of directors for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel).

“You see, we do not have independence of courts from the beginning [of democracy in 1993] until now, and we have solved political conflicts this way in the past,” he said. “We cannot solve problems of political conflict by respecting the decision of courts because the court is not independent enough to make a fair decision for the parties involved.”

Prior to being pardoned on Friday, Mr. Rainsy faced at least 11 years in prison on a raft of charges including destruction of public property for uprooting demarcation posts along the Vietnamese border, disinformation for posting maps online to support claims that Vietnam is encroaching on Cambodian territory and defamation of Mr. Namhong over accusations that he ran a Khmer Rouge prison camp.

Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, concurred that the granting of a royal pardon represented the only possible solution to politically motivated decisions.

“The problem [with finding a solution through the courts] is that the original case [against Mr. Rainsy] was political…. It is because of political involvement that the public has doubts about the independence of the judiciary,” he said.

Koul Panha, the executive director of Comfrel, said that allowing the opposition leader to return to the country was only a first step toward the more important decision to allow him to compete as a candidate in the national election.

“It is very important to allow him [Mr. Rainsy] to contest elections as a candidate in order to increase the fairness of competition,” he said, adding that regardless of Mr. Rainsy’s participation, a litany of obstacles continued to stifle the credibility of the July 28 ballot, which Comfrel has said will be the least fair in 20 years.
“A lot still needs to be improved including equal access to media, misuse of state resources, the [National Election Committee’s] performance and composition, voter lists and neutrality of armed forces in campaigning,” he said.

On Friday, the U.S. State Department, which has made several efforts to move Mr. Hun Sen’s administration toward democratic reform, applauded the pardon of Mr. Rainsy but encouraged further improvements to the electoral process.

“While his [Mr. Rainsy’s] safe return will be a significant step in the right direction, we encourage the Cambodian Government to continue implementing recommendations by the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia aimed at free and fair elections,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a daily briefing in Washington.

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