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Ethics on trial in Bar inspection

Legal experts say a lot in balance in investigation of SRP lawyer

AN INVESTIGATION into lawyer Kong Sam Onn, who is representing opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua in her defamation suit against Prime Minister Hun Sen, could have a chilling effect on the profession, legal experts warned this week, ahead of a ruling by the Cambodian Bar Association that could see the attorney lose his licence.

While he said it is the Bar's right to initiate proceedings, which had so far been conducted according to the organisation's internal rules, Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, said the case had to be handled carefully so as not to have a chilling effect on other lawyers.

"If Kong Sam Onn is sanctioned, I think it will affect other lawyers in the country," he said.

"They won't dare to defend or say anything related to high-ranking or powerful people out of a concern they will be sanctioned and lose their professional licence."

Mu Sochua, one of the Sam Rainsy Party's most outspoken members, brought suit against Hun Sen, saying that during a speech in April he had called her cheung klang, a Khmer term meaning "strong leg", which she said can also be a derogatory reference to a woman.

Lawyers for Hun Sen, who is countersuing Mu Sochua, filed a complaint against Kong Sam Onn with the Bar on May 1, asking that he be disbarred for allegedly violating the organisation's code of ethics by saying at a press conference that the prime minister had defamed his client before a court ruling had been made.

"[He] judged and condemned Samdech Prime Minister before his client had sent the complaint to the court," said Ky Tech, the prime minister's attorney.

"According to the law, lawyers don't have the right to make an analysis or a judgment - only the court does."

But the move has been criticised by rights groups and legal experts, who call it political interference in the courts.

Kong Sam Onn said Tuesday that he expected the case would be subject to political influence and that equality before the law would "not be respected" because of the players involved.

"I am confronting a top leader of the government. There is political pressure," he told the Post.

"[I]f I committed a fault then I will find other job. But if the decision is unjust, it will devastate me, not only now but for the rest of my life."

He added that in the event he was disbarred he would take legal action to ensure he is allowed to continue practising.

Ethical obligations

Other legal experts said the ethics of the legal profession obliged lawyers to provide defence counsel to any one who required it - even senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime.

"If there is political influence and pressure from other individuals or institutions, it could really have a bad effect on the abilities of the Bar and the profession," said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, a Cambodian legal aid group.

He said that the Bar Association's involvement with the Khmer Rouge tribunal made it all the more important that its investigation of Kong Sam Onn be carried out transparently.

"I hope that the Bar is really thinking about what it is doing and that they will safeguard their credibility," he said.

But Ky Tech dismissed suggestions of political pressure on the Bar, saying that he was tasked by the prime minister of defending him and would do so according to the law.

"The general opinion is that there is pressure from the government, but I think it is a fabrication. My complaint to the Bar Association will determine whether Kong Sam Onn has acted professionally or not," he said.

"This case will not affect the defence, nor discourage lawyers from carrying out their duties."

Chiv Songhak, president of the Bar Association of Cambodia, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

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