The abundant lawsuits filed in recent months by the country’s highest authorities against critics of the government are “excessive and unjustified” and threaten the nation’s democratic development, according to a statement issued Monday by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia.
Referring to lawsuits filed since April by the government, senior government officials and RCAF military officers against opposition and civil society leaders, the UN statement said the country is in danger of moving backwards in protecting basic human liberties.
“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,” the OHCHR statement said.
“Stifling freedom of expression through the use or the threat of legal action…especially in a context where the courts are vulnerable to executive influence, is a serious threat to democratic development which may undermine the efforts of the past 16 years to rebuild a tolerant and pluralistic environment in Cambodia,” the statement said, adding that “it is inappropriate for complaints to be filed in the name of the government.”
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kan-
harith could not be reached for comment Monday, but Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan dismissed the UN statement, saying that the UN in Phnom Penh office was ignorant when it came to Cambodia’s constitution.
“The UN does not know about Cambodia’s constitution,” Mr Siphan said by telephone. “The UN’s statement is groundless.”
Mr Siphan added that the government respects the rule of law and, therefore, relies on the country’s courts when seeking justice.
“Without the judicial system, what is it that the government should do?” he asked.
The UN statement detailed several such defamation and disinformation lawsuits that have been filed with the courts since April, including the one filed by Prime Minister Hun Sen against SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua.
The prime minister’s lawsuit against Ms Sochua is over comments she made during an April news conference in which she announced that she was suing the premier for comments he made during a speech earlier that month. The prime minister countersued on the grounds that accusing him of defamation was, in fact, defamatory.
In its statement, the OHCHR called for an end to the lifting of parliamentary immunity in defamation and disinformation lawsuits.
“The lifting of Parliamentary immunity, or threat thereof, for intimidation purposes undermines its important value in enabling free discussion of public issues among people’s representatives and law-makers,” the statement said. “This practice should cease” it added.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, who is also a member of the Assembly’s permanent committee, said by telephone that the OHCHR statement was “biased” against the government for the benefit of the opposition.
“The government and the CPP want to have a good reputation, but so far the human rights people always criticize the ruling party,” Mr Yeap said.
Mr Yeap also denied that the executive branch has control over the courts.
“The government has no means to try to influence the judicial system,” he maintained.
The UN statement went on to say that similar actions in other countries have shown that “limiting freedom of expression, instead of addressing issues and criticism through discussion and a reasonable debate, not only provokes self-censorship but nurtures fear, frustration and anger, with the risk of leading to further conflict and violence.”
US Embassy spokesman John Johnson said by telephone Monday that it “appears that the courts are being used to silence critics of the government.”
“We’re disappointed to see the constriction of free expression in Cambodia over the past couple months. We believe that the pro-
gress that the country has made in this area is threatened by recent developments,” he said, adding that public figures and politicians should be able to take criticism from citizens.
“And free speech and freedom of the press are fundamental rights in democracies throughout the world,” he said.
Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana could not be reached for comment Monday. While Phnom Penh Municipal Court Deputy Prosecutor Sok Roeun, who is named in the UN statement as the leading figure in the investigations into the highlighted court cases, declined to comment.
Besides the premier’s lawsuit against Ms Sochua, the UN statement highlighted six other cases recently filed with the courts, including: Mr Hun Sen’s lawsuit against Ms Sochua’s lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, for saying that the prime minister had defamed his client.
Cabinet Minister Sok An’s defamation and disinformation complaint filed in May against Hang Chakra, editor of the Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, over several articles alleging possible corruption at the Council of Ministers.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema’s complaint against SRP President Sam Rainsy over a speech the SRP president gave allegedly claiming that Mr Chuktema was involved in vote-buying for the CPP prior to the council elections in May.
The defamation and incitement lawsuit filed June 2 by government lawyer Pol Chandara with the Phnom Penh court against Moeun Sonn, the president of Khmer Civilization Foundation for allegedly publishing false information about the controversial light installation at Angkor Wat.
The lawsuit filed against SRP lawmaker Ho Vann on June 5 by 22 RCAF military officers over comments the lawmaker made related to post-graduate degrees recently obtained by the officers.
And this month’s quick conviction of 22-year-old SRP youth wing leader Soung Sophorn, who was arrested, charged and ordered by the Phnom Penh court to pay a $1,250 fine for having spray-painted words critical of the government on the wall of his private house located on Boeng Kak lake.