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UN decries glut of lawsuits

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Rights office fears defamation cases could erode democratic gains.

Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN

Hang Chakra, publisher of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, leaves Phnom Penh Municipal Court after a June 3 hearing.

ARECENT string of defamation and disinformation lawsuits filed against opposition lawmakers and journalists is inhibiting free and open discussion in Cambodia, the UN said Monday, citing it as a "serious threat" to the country's democratic development.

As the UN's new rights envoy Surya Subedi arrived in Phnom Penh for the first time, the local UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in the statement that the two months since April have seen an spike in judicial activity, with high-level officials filing eight separate defamation and disinformation suits against government critics.

"These actions undermine the constitutional freedom of opinion and expression which everyone in Cambodia is entitled to, and which is the cornerstone of the exercise of civil and political rights," it said.

"Pursuing the current complaints may reverse the course of the still fragile democratic development process."

The statement cited as examples the series of complaints filed by government officials, including separate cases against opposition party  president Sam Rainsy; SRP lawmakers Mu Sochua and Ho Vann; Hang Chakra, publisher of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper; Khmer Civilisation Association President Moeun Sonn; and Soung Sophorn, a 22-year-old student.

The last is the only case to have received a verdict: On June 8, Soung Sophorn was fined US$1,250 for spray painting anti-government slogans on the walls of his private residence near Boeung Kak lake.

The criticisms come amidst a wave of similar complaints from local civil society groups, who claim the government has enlisted the UNTAC criminal code's Articles 62 [disinformation] and 63 [defamation and libel] as the newest weapons in its fight against dissenting opinion.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre of Human Rights, said the current situation paralleled a similar period in 2005, when, he said, the government went on a judicial offensive to divert attention from an unpopular border treaty with Vietnam.

"Instead of defending the treaty, the Cambodian government began filing a lot of defamation lawsuits," he said.

The main concern in 2009, Ou Virak said, is land rights.

"Land issues today are the only issues in Cambodia that could ... potentially create social unrest and might even undermine the current government," he said.

"Land conflicts are so widespread that the government has to do something drastic and divert attention."

The CCHR issued a statement along with four other local NGOs Thursday, citing "the perilous state" of freedom of expression in Cambodia due to recent court actions and crackdowns on public meetings.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he had not seen the statement, but that the UN's criticisms of the government usually ignore the facts on the ground.

"Before they accuse [the government], they should learn more about Cambodia," he said. "We just carry out what the law requires. We have all kinds of laws to protect human rights and human dignity."

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