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Rainsy sentence blows apart pretence of democracy

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy speaks during a campaign rally in Kandal province
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy speaks during a campaign rally in Kandal province

Reuters via Human Rights Watch

The latest conviction of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on trumped up charges is a clear example of the country's deteriorating free expression situation and a government that is no longer interested in appearing democratic, say Human Rights Watch and ARTICLE 19.

That the government is using the judiciary to silence dissent - and that such attacks are putting democracy at risk - is a key finding in a new report launched by ARTICLE 19, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and 15 other Cambodian and international organisations and unions.

Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison on 23 September on charges of spreading disinformation and falsifying maps. Rainsy, well-known leader of the opposition since 1998, had disseminated a map that claimed that Cambodia's border with Vietnam had been moved.

According to Human Rights Watch, the trial was closed to the public, though the verdict was read out by Judge Ke Sakhan. The judge said, ''The acts committed by the offender seriously affected the honour of the government."

"The sentencing of Rainsy takes Hun Sen's campaign of persecution of critics to a new extreme and highlights government control over the judiciary," Human Rights Watch said.

"Somehow the Cambodian authorities routinely find the time to use the police and courts to attack critics, but never are able to arrest or convict those who attack, often murderously, those very same critics," Human Rights Watch added.

Rainsy, who has been in self-imposed exile abroad all of this year, faces prison if he returns to Cambodia - leaving little hope that he can run in the 2013 National Assembly elections.

Human Rights Watch urged the United States, the European Union, Japan and other key donors to take strong diplomatic action against the sentencing of Rainsy, including recalling their ambassadors to demonstrate their outrage. Donors contribute approximately 50 percent of the Cambodian government's budget.

Launching the Cambodia report, ARTICLE 19 said, "In recent years, acts of intimidation, harassment and the inappropriate use of criminal law to thwart criticism, have created a climate of fear and widespread self-censorship, depriving Cambodians of their rights to expression and information that are crucial to genuine democratic participation."

The report, "Cambodia Gagged: Democracy at Risk?", highlights the deteriorating freedom of expression situation in Cambodia, and specifically how the government silences parliamentarians such as Rainsy, the media, lawyers, human rights activists and the general public. The report dedicates a chapter to each of these "pillars of democracy" - exploring how the government has targeted them, and the implications for democracy.

The report provides a series of recommendations for Cambodia's government, the five groups that make up the pillars of democracy, and the international community to protect and promote free expression - including which laws to promote and which councils to lobby.

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