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Courts used to muzzle political opponents

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a 20 December 2005 Human Rights Watch press release:

Cambodia: Courts Used to Muzzle Political Opponents
Politically Motivated Prosecution of Sam Rainsy Should Be Abandoned

(New York, December 20, 2005) - The Cambodian government should stop using spurious, politically motivated criminal lawsuits as a way to silence its critics, Human Rights Watch said today.

On Thursday, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who fled the country in February to avoid arrest on trumped-up charges, will be tried in absentia at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on charges of criminal defamation. National Assembly President Norodom Ranariddh is suing Rainsy for allegedly stating that Ranariddh accepted bribes in exchange for agreeing to form a coalition government with Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). Rainsy also faces a suit from Prime Minister Hun Sen after allegedly stating that Hun Sen had drawn up a blacklist of political opponents to be assassinated, including Rainsy.

"These charges are politically motivated and should be dropped," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "No one in any country should face jail for the peaceful criticism of a country's leaders. Trials like these are especially dangerous in Cambodia where the courts are controlled by the government."

Human Rights Watch said that it opposes the use of the criminal law in cases of alleged defamation and is particularly concerned by their use to infringe upon the right of free expression. In addition, in absentia trials violate the rights of an accused under international law to a fair trial, specifically to examine the witnesses and evidence against him.

The defamation suits follow years of harassment and physical attacks by the government on Sam Rainsy and members of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). In February 2005 the National Assembly lifted the immunity of Rainsy and two other SRP parliamentarians in order to press criminal charges against them after the party set up a Westminster-style shadow administration. The government claimed, without producing any credible evidence, that the SRP was forming a private army.

Sam Rainsy, president of the SRP, and Chea Poch, an MP, fled the country before they could be arrested. Poch faces a criminal defamation suit filed by Ranariddh for allegedly saying that Ranariddh joined the coalition government with the CPP after receiving U.S.$30 million from Hun Sen.

The third MP, Cheam Channy, did not try to leave Cambodia and was arrested on charges of forming an illegal rebel army. On August 8 he was sentenced by the military court to seven years' imprisonment for organized crime and fraud. Under Cambodian law, the military court does not have jurisdiction to hear cases against civilians. No credible evidence of a criminal law violation was provided at the trial, which was marred by severe procedural irregularities. Channy's health has reportedly deteriorated while in Tuol Sleng military prison.

"Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh claim that they are committed to pluralism and democracy, but allowing the leader of the opposition to face prison for criticizing them makes a mockery of that commitment," said Adams.

Thursday's trial is the latest in a series of events that have greatly weakened Cambodia's fledgling pluralistic democracy.

Human Rights Watch said that Hun Sen's government is increasingly using legal action, notably criminal prosecutions for defamation or incitement, to threaten and intimidate civil society figures, journalists, human rights defenders, and opposition political party members.

At least seven critics of a controversial new border treaty with Vietnam face criminal lawsuits initiated by Hun Sen. In October, radio journalist Mom Sonando and Rong Chhum, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, were arrested and are being held without bail on charges of defamation and incitement for publicly opposing the treaty. Human Rights Watch called for their immediate release.

On December 10, municipal authorities demanded the removal of a banner at a Human Rights Day rally, which focused on the subject of freedom of expression, because it allegedly contained statements critical of the prime minister. The authorities are reportedly considering criminal charges against the individuals who made the banner and the organizers of the rally.

"The Cambodian government doesn't seem to understand the sad irony of threatening critics of the prime minister on International Human Rights Day, but the rest of the world does," said Adams. "Cambodia seems to be traveling down the path to becoming an elected dictatorship. It is time for Cambodia's friends in the international community to reengage politically and make it clear to the government that it has to meet its human rights commitments."

Background

Sam Rainsy, formerly a member of the royalist Funcinpec Party, was removed from his post as minister of finance in 1994 and then expelled from the National Assembly in 1995 after falling out with Ranariddh and Hun Sen. Rainsy subsequently established his own opposition party, the Khmer Nation Party (KNP), but had to change its name after Hun Sen engineered a split in the party that led to renegade party members' claiming to be the legitimate representatives of the KNP. In 1998 Rainsy formed the eponymous Sam Rainsy Party. Rainsy and Ranariddh formed an anti-CPP alliance for both the 1998 and 2003 elections, but in each case Ranariddh eventually joined a coalition government with Hun Sen, while Rainsy remained in opposition.

Rainsy has been subject to constant threats of violence and arrest. The most extreme attack occurred on March 30, 1997, when a peaceful rally led by Rainsy against judicial corruption was attacked by grenade throwers, leaving at least 16 dead and 150 injured. Evidence linked Hun Sen's bodyguard unit to the attack.

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