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Court seen as tool to stop critics

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090602_02.jpg

But observers divided on legality of all political speech

Photo by: SOVANN PHILONG

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua announces her lawsuit against Prime Minister Hun Sen at party headquarters on April 23.

THREE Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers are now on the receiving end of defamation lawsuits filed by officials from the ruling Cambodian People's Party, drawing criticism from rights groups who say that the government is increasingly using the courts to silence political opponents.

"The defamation lawsuit against the SRP lawmakers shows an inclination to shut down the rights and freedoms of this party," the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights said in a statement Monday.

In recent weeks, SRP President Sam Rainsy has been sued for defamation by Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema over comments that city officials bought votes during the May 17 council elections. Lawmaker Mu Sochua is to appear in court Wednesday to answer questions relating to a defamation suit by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Lawmaker Ho Vann, who is accused of defaming 22 RCAF officials by questioning the validity of degrees awarded to them by a Vietnamese military academy on April 20, is also set to appear in court Friday.

But opinions are divided on the extent to which the right to political freedom of speech should trump other freedoms and rights.

SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said lawmakers should be able to talk freely on any issue - a right symbolised by their immunity from prosecution - but that the SRP's recent successes at the May 17 provincial, district and municipal council election had put it in the CPP's firing line.

The judicial system, which he said is "100 percent" under the control of the ruling party, was now being brought to bear on outspoken politicians.

"The CPP is aware that we are stronger and stronger. So now there's another trick in the process of intimidation, [which is to] use the courts and the judicial system to threaten SRP members," he said.

"We are not afraid of that because we have been used to it since the establishment of the party."

Deliberate or not, other observers said that officials had the right to file defamation lawsuits if they felt their reputation was subject to unfair attack.

"Article 39 of the Constitution states that someone can sue whomever defames him... if it affects [that person's] honour," said Heang Rithy, president of the Cambodian National Research Organisation.

Everyone has freedom

of expression, but that

freedom... cannot affect someone else's rights.

"It is an individual's right. We cannot prohibit lawsuits."
He added that while international covenants and local laws guaranteed freedom of speech, the freedom was not absolute.

"Article 19 of the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights states that everyone has freedom of expression, but that freedom of expression cannot affect someone else's rights," Heang Rithy said.

Then there is the issue of judicial independence, said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project. While he said he could not comment in detail on what has prompted these three recent cases, he said the fairness of the process was a concern.

"The problem is the independence of the judiciary. If the judiciary is independent, we hope that it could solve the cases fairly," he said, but added that good laws were of no use in a system where political interests held all the cards.

"Even the government recognises that the judiciary needs to be reformed. If it was independent and strong [already], there would be no need for reform."

On with the case

Meanwhile, SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who was countersued by the prime minister after she sued him, saying that he had made  defamatory comments about her in an April speech, told the Post she was ready to face the charges Wednesday at Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

"I will appear at the court with my lawyer Kong Sam Onn. We are not scared of answering the court's questions," she said Sunday.

"I did not defame Samdech Hun Sen. What I said followed [his] comments."

Kong Sam Onn, who also faces an investigation by the Cambodian Bar Association after Hun Sen's lawyer Ky Tech accused him of violating professional codes of ethics by speaking publicly about the Mu Sochua case, appeared before a Bar inspection team for the second time Monday.

But the meeting was suspended for the second time after Kong Sam Onn requested that the Bar replace one of the inspection panel members - lawyer Hem Voun - who he claims is closely involved with Ky Tech.

"[Hem Voun] is a member of Ky Tech's lawyer club. For Ky Tech to accuse me and then  to investigate my case is not right," he said.

"As a lawyer, I must defend myself as well."

A similar Bar inspection hearing last Monday was also postponed after the meeting failed to achieve a quorum.

Bar Association President Chiv Songhak said he supported Kong Sam Onn's request but did not say who will replace Hem Voun on the inspection team.

Hem Voun said that, as a professional lawyer, he understood the request and "did not oppose" it.

Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith and senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap could not be reached for comment Monday.    

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