A UN special expert on judicial independence expressed concern Wednesday over what he called recent attempts in Cambodia to restrict the ability of lawyers to represent their clients, saying that such attempts could have a “chilling effect” on the country’s legal profession.
In a statement released out of Geneva headquarters of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Leandro Despouy, cited one such “attempt” as the case of Kong Sam Onn, lawyer for SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who is being sued for defamation along with his client by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mr Despouy also pointed to the January threats of legal action by Cambodian judges at the Khmer Rouge tribunal against defense lawyers calling for investigations into corruption allegations at the tribunal, as well as June 2007 threats of prosecution for incitement against lawyers assisting an indigenous community in Ratanakkiri with their land dispute with a well-connected business woman.
Such moves hamper the efforts of lawyers to act for their clients, the special rapporteur said.
“To be able to represent their clients effectively, lawyers should not be subject to threats or intimidation, nor should they be targeted for prosecution or disciplinary action merely for having acted in the interests of their clients,” Mr Despouy was quoted in the statement as saying.
However, government and judicial officials defended the courts Wednesday, saying they have acted in accordance with the law.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Director Chiv Keng said attorneys, much like their clients, are not above the law and therefore open to legal proceedings if they do not obey the law.
“Lawyers must respect the law. Everyone must respect the law,” he said Wednesday by telephone, adding that the problems cited in the UN statement only affected a few attorneys.
“Why take one lawyer and say it’s a problem?” he said.
An assistant answering the telephone of Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said the minister was in a meeting and asked a reporter to call back later for an interview. Subsequent calls to the minister went unanswered.
The UN statement also called for the council of the Cambodian Bar Association to be allowed exercise without “external pressure its responsibilities under the Law on the Bar to protect the independence and autonomy of the legal profession in Cambodia.”
Bar Association President Chiv Songhak declined to comment in detail Wednesday, saying he had not seen the statement, but did say that, “It seems that nobody is being intimidated.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s attorney, former Cambodian Bar Association president Ky Tech, said the UN statement was issued without studying the facts. Like Judge Keng, he also mentioned how the issues raised by the UN only affected a handful of professionals.
“There are codes of ethics and internal rules for lawyers so that they can keep their correct professions, to prevent them from using their positions in the wrong ways,” he said. “There are only two to three bad people and there are about 500 lawyers” in Cambodia.
Appointed by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the UN Special Rapporteur is an independent expert charged with monitoring the independence of the judiciary, lawyers and court officials. Mr Despouy, an Argentinean human rights lawyer, has held the position of UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers since August 2003.