BANGKOK — A court in Cambodia has dismissed a case on the killing of a well-known environment and rights campaigner. Critics say is the latest failure of the justice system.
Chut Wutty was shot dead under suspicious circumstances in one of a series of recent attacks against activists, journalists and protesters. Rights groups say the incidents underscore impunity for the powerful and political interference in the courts.
The activist was investigating alleged illegal logging when he was stopped at a checkpoint, shot and killed, along with a military police officer. Police blamed the dead officer for the April killing in Southwest Koh Kong province.
They initially claimed the policeman committed suicide but later changed their story to say he was accidentally shot, twice, by a security guard.
A Koh Kong provincial court was to open a hearing on the two killings Thursday, but suddenly dropped the Chut Wutty shooting, saying the suspect was already dead.
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says the court's failure to pursue the case demonstrates political interference.
"Many of the officials who benefit from illegal trade, illegal logging, and illegal trade of timbers, were not happy with him," Ou Virak noted. "And, because of that, I don't think there's any desire by the government and people in power to investigate."
Chut Wutty was a vocal critic of corruption in Cambodia's land disputes and natural resources.
Other recent cases have underscored the influence of powerful business and political figures to manipulate the justice system.
On Monday, a court sentenced the owner of Cambodia's only independent radio station to 20 years in prison for insurrection, despite flimsy evidence.
Activists say Mam Sonando, 70, whose Beehive Radio carries some VOA and Radio Free Asia programs, was targeted for challenging authorities.
The court pursued the case against Mam Sonando only after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for his arrest.
Janice Beanland, a campaigner for Amnesty International, says the verdict raised serious doubts about whether it is possible to have a fair trial in Cambodia.
"I think that this year has seen a marked deterioration in the situation for freedom of expression, particularly for human rights defenders and peaceful protesters," Beanland said. "They are facing increasing harassment, legal action through government-controlled courts, and violence including killings."
In September, the body of a journalist investigating illegal logging connections to the Cambodian military was found in the trunk of a car.
At least three other incidents this year involved security forces opening fire on unarmed labor and land protesters.
In May, a 14-year-old girl was shot dead during a violent land eviction.
Ou Virak says there appears to be increasing intolerance of criticism leading up to 2013 nationwide elections - especially on land issues.
"The ruling party was not happy with the result of the latest local election in 2012, even though they won a landslide victory they expect more," said Ou Virak. "So, they are beginning to silence the critics, they are beginning to stop some of the media from reporting on the widespread conflicts that arose from land, economic land concessions, and land grabs. And, I think the crackdown will continue until election day."
Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party swept June elections for communal chiefs, winning more than 70 percent of the vote.
But the CPP lost ground in areas with land disputes and forced evictions from land leased to foreign companies.
The sensitivity of the issue led Prime Minister Hun Sen to declare a moratorium and review of land concessions.
Surya Subedi is the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia. He says while halting the corruption-prone practice was a step in the right direction freedom of expression was still deteriorating.
"And, in the run up to the elections I have asked the government to relax the situation and I have recommended that there should be a free and open political environment to hold free and fair elections," said Subedi. "And, what I have seen, the recent couple of incidents, demonstrate that things are not moving in the right direction."
In a July report to the United Nations, Subedi said human rights defenders now feared for their lives and increased intolerance by authorities would likely affect political space for opposition parties.
The main opposition Sam Rainsy Party Tuesday announced it won approval to merge with the Human Rights party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
But, even if they had a level playing field, the opposition holds 29 parliament seats, compared to the ruling CPP's 90.
Sam Rainsy, who leads his party, lives in self-imposed exile to avoid jail for convictions that critics say are political.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for 27 years and says he will stay in power until death.