Cambodia NGOs yesterday slammed the conviction of a local human rights worker for defamation and called on the Constitutional Council to review defamation and disinformation as defined in the Kingdom’s new Penal Code.
Twenty-eight Cambodian NGOs released a joint statement condemning the Kampong Chhnang provincial court’s Tuesday ruling against Sam Chankea, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, for a statement he made during an interview with Radio Free Asia in 2009.
The statement referred to a land dispute between local villagers and KDC International, which is owned by Chea Kheng, the wife of Minister for Industry, Mines and Energy Suy Sem.
The court fined Sam Chankea 1 million riels (US$247) and ordered him to pay 3 million riels in compensation to the company,
The court’s decision reflected a restriction on free speech that would prevent people charged with investigating and monitoring human rights from doing their jobs, the groups said.
“Such an action will make other human rights activists not dare to express his/her opinion about any event,” they said.
The groups urged higher courts to reverse the decisions against Sam Chankea and local resident Reach Seima, who was convicted of disinformation in a related case last week.
Tith Sothea, spokesman for the Press and Quick Reactions Unit at the Council of Ministers, said yesterday the statement would have no bearing on court procedure.
“The court sentences anyone with enough proof and witnesses.”
In the Radio Free Asia interview in question, according to a translation of his remarks by the rights group Forum-Asia, Sam Chankea stated: “What the company has done is an act of violation since the court has yet to rule on the merits of the case. Therefore, the company should suspend the activity and await the ruling on the merits of the case.”
In June last year, KDC International sued Sam Chankea for defamation and disinformation.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a division of the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, said in a statement yesterday that it was concerned about “the judicial harassment against Mr Chankea and the two community leaders, which seems to merely aim at [punishing] their human rights activities”.
The Observatory called on the Cambodian government to “refrain from abusing the Criminal Code and other laws to restrict [freedom] of expression and silence legitimate criticisms”.
Sam Chankea’s conviction follows a string of political prosecutions that have earned the government international criticism. In December, Seng Kunnaka, a security guard employed by the United Nations World Food Programme, was found guilty of incitement and sentenced to six months in prison for allegedly printing out and distributing material from a popular opposition blog.