Photo by: Sovan Philong
POLICE ACTION IN THE SPOTLIGHT
THE violent scenes that followed the verdict in Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua’s defamation on Tuesday are a testament to the government’s hostility to democracy and freedom of expression, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) said, describing the day of the conviction as “another dark day for justice and democracy in Cambodia”. “The CCHR regrets the verdict and condemns the manner in which the police handled a peaceful procession,” the group said in a statement Friday, noting several instances of violence against civil society members, opposition politicians and bystanders. Protestor Seng Hok Chher said that he was kicked by police before being detained and held by authorities for around an hour. “They kicked me when I ran to break up the clashes. They saw me as Sam Rainsy’s bodyguard, [and] I was arrested,” he said.
THE European Commission has strongly condemned the government's recent legal offensive against outspoken critics, warning it could lead to a severe narrowing of the democratic space in Cambodia.
During a meeting with foreign ministry officials, three EU representatives said a recent string of defamation and disinformation cases against opposition figures and journalists could have "serious consequences for civil society's willingness to engage in democratic debate".
According to a classified terms of reference approved by the EU's 27 member states prior to the Friday meeting, EU representatives tabled concerns about "the use of criminal defamation and disinformation charges, including severe penalties imposed by the courts, to target those in civil society who raise minor criticisms of government policy".
The document, a copy of which has been obtained by the Post, also called attention to the government's "disregard" for protections of freedom of speech for elected representatives and the bringing of criminal charges against journalists "over articles critical of government policy".
Step by step
EU officials said they stopped short of threatening a withdrawal of financial support, saying that using development aid to punish or reward the government was "not a constructive way" to manage their relationship.
"It's not a matter of turning on and off taps in relation to good behaviour by the government," said British ambassador Andrew Mace, who represented the EU at the meeting.
But Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre of Human Rights, said that the threat of an aid withdrawal, whether or not it was made explicit, would be in the minds of government officials following the meeting.
He said that the government needed Western support for legitimacy, and that the EU's "unusually" strong position would keep officials guessing.
THE EU IS MAKING A VERY CLEAR STATEMENT TO THE CAMBODIAN GOVERNMENT.
"I think that the EU is making a very clear statement to the Cambodian government," he said. "If I were [Prime Minister] Hun Sen I would be very concerned."
Mace said the atmosphere at the meeting was "frank and constructive", part of an ongoing process of dialogue between the EU and the government.
"They listened to our concerns and told us their view very openly," he said.
"They certainly expressed their intention to ensure that they were meeting their international human rights obligations. Though we didn't agree on everything, I think it took place in a friendly, constructive spirit."
He added: "We'll continue to raise our concerns when we have them. We have discussed these issues over a long period of time with the government."
Ouch Borith, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who represented the government at the meeting, could not be reached for comment Sunday.
When contacted Sunday, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong did not wish to comment but said the ministry would be releasing a statement "responding to the EU's concerns" today.
The meeting, which also involved German Ambassador Frank Marcus Mann and Rafael Dochao-Moreno, head of the delegation of the European Commission, came following the conviction of Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua on defamation charges Tuesday.
The aftermath of the hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, which ordered Mu Sochua to pay 16.5 million riels (US$3,937) in fines and compensation for defaming Hun Sen, has also drawn fire from rights groups, who claim police used excessive force in their attempts to prevent SRP parliamentarians and supporters from marching through the city.