Civil society leaders have urged the government to prosecute a CPP senator who is under investigation for illegal encroachment in protected forest areas, saying that failing to punish senior officials only reinforces perceptions that the country’s elite are above the law.

Senator Noy Sron, who represents the 8th Zone in Cambodia’s rural northeast, could have his legal immunity lifted if a government inquiry finds him guilty of encroaching on state land, said Mam Bun Neang, a government spokesman who spoke to Newsroom Cambodia on October 8. He stressed that Sron had not yet been charged with a crime and that the authorities were studying the case.

“If Noy Sron is found guilty, the relevant ministry will submit a report to the Senate, which will then convene a standing committee to discuss the extent of Sron’s guilt based on Article 104 of the Constitution … before handing Sron over to the police and the courts in compliance with the law,” Mam Bun Neang said.

A senate statement reported on by government-aligned Fresh News on October 6 said Sron had used his power and influence as a senator to instruct local officials to sign illegal land documents. 

The report said that Sron had apologized to the president and deputy presidents of the Senate for his “mistakes” concerning the illegal acquisition of land in some protected areas, including wildlife conservation zones in Keo Seima, Sre Pok and Phnom Prech.

Sron also last month wrote a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen in which he claimed he never took possession of a 531-hectare plot of land at the heart of the controversy, according to a report by VOA Khmer. Sron told the Voice of Democracy on October 7 that the prime minister had received his apology.

Human rights organizations said an apology was hardly enough. Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, wrote on her Facebook page on October 6 that Sron should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, noting that senior officials had in the past mostly escaped punishment for similar crimes.

“The government should end the culture of impunity, including past measures like using only administrative fines. Most convicted officials have been simply removed or transferred, sometimes transferring to better positions,” she said.

“If the courts do not implement the rule of law, it will only contribute to the continuation of inaction. The perpetrators still dare to commit crimes and failing to prosecute them will encourage others to do the same. This inaction will affect government efforts for reform,” she said.

An October 7 statement from the Senate said an inter-ministerial group had started looking into Sron’s land deals after Interior Minister Sar Kheng sent a letter to the president of the senate, Say Chhum, regarding Sron’s role in preparing documents for the 531-hectare plot of land in Pusam village in the Oreang district of Mondulkiri province.

The Ministry of Justice spokesman, Chin Malin, declined to comment on Sron’s case, saying he could not reach a conclusion on behalf of the courts because he did not know the full facts of the case. 

Pich Sros, president of the Cambodian Youth Party, took to social media to denounce the case. In an October 7 Facebook post, the same day as the Fresh News agency reported the case, he called for legal action against Sron. He said the only way for the courts to be transparent was to implement the law equally on the powerful and the powerless. 

“The law punishes people who commit crimes,” he said in the post. “So, if the law does not punish powerful people who commit crimes, why did we create the law?