Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cambodian lawmaker found guilty of defaming PM

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen won a US$4,100 defamation judgment against opposition lawmaker Mu Sochoa today. — Reuters pic
PHNOM PENH, Aug 4 — A Cambodian court ordered an opposition lawmaker to pay US$4,100 (RM14,350) in damages today for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen, provoking fresh concerns the government is using the judiciary to suppress its detractors.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruled that Mu Sochua of the Sam Rainsy Party had defamed the long-serving premier when she tried to sue him over comments he made about her conduct during last year’s election campaign.

Critics said the ruling reflected Hun Sen’s determination to use the courts to muzzle the opposition.

“That was not justice in the courtroom. It was totally political,” Sochua told reporters, who were banned from attending the court session.

“I will continue to fight until I get justice. Today, the court could have been a light for justice. The judge gave us darkness instead.”

Sochua, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for her work against the trafficking of women in Cambodia, and another lawmaker, Ho Vann, were stripped of their legal immunity last month and lost their seats in parliament as a result.

Vann is accused of spreading false information and faces three years in prison.

Newspaper editor Hang Chkra is serving a one-year sentence in Phnom Penh for writing about alleged government corruption. An opposition activist, Moeung Sonn, fled the country in June after being given a two-year sentence for questioning a lighting system at the famed Angkor Wat temple complex, the country’s biggest tourism draw.

Another opposition newspaper shut down after 10 years of publishing to avoid government legal action.

Sara Colm of New York-based Human Rights Watch told Reuters today: “This is the most serious crackdown on freedom of expression in years. The space for opposition media and peaceful dissent is rapidly shrinking.”

“These lawsuits are a clear attempt to harass the opposition and prevent members of parliament from exercising free expression.”

Colm urged donors, who provided nearly $1 billion in aid last year, to make the government aware of their concerns.

“Donors — particularly those who have funded judicial and legal reform — need to take a firm stand,” she said.

Human Rights Watch also called for an end to using the judiciary as a tool to silence government critics.

Sam Rainsy, leader of the country’s largest opposition party which carries his name, said the court ruling had drawn attention to Hun Sen’s attempts to intimidate his opponents.

“It may be a judicial defeat, but it is a moral and political victory for us as the opposition,” he said.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge guerrilla, criticised rights groups and foreign diplomats last month for interfering in Cambodia’s affairs after they voiced concern about the removal of lawmakers’ parliamentary immunity.

He has dominated Cambodian politics for more than two decades and won a landslide election victory in July last year. — Reuters

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