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Conviction of Sam Chankea is an attack on freedom of expression, says ARTICLE 19

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - 25 January 2011 - ARTICLE 19 and the Cambodia Center for Human Right (CCHR) condemn the defamation conviction of Cambodian human rights defender Sam Chankea. Chankea has been found guilty by the Kampong Chhang Provincial Court of defaming the work of KDC International, a company owned by the wife of the Minister for Industry, Mines and Energy. Today's ruling is a stark reminder of the shrinking space for Cambodians to exercise their right to freedom of expression in the country.

"This judgement indicates how the new Penal Code, which came into force on 11 December 2010, is a real threat to those who exercise their legitimate right to freedom of expression. Criminal defamation legislation not only stifles free speech but can also be politically abused to protect the rich and powerful," said ARTICLE 19 Executive Director Agnès Callamard.

CCHR President Ou Virak noted, "The verdict in the case of Sam Chankea is a worrying precedent for those who are willing to speak out against the actions of the economic and political elite of Cambodia. The new Penal Code lowered the threshold for defamation. This case shows that the enforcement of this law can be easily manipulated by money and political influence."

The charges against Sam Chankea, a coordinator for local rights group ADHOC, relate to an interview he had given to Radio Free Asia on 26 December 2009, at which he expressed his opinion about a land dispute between the villagers of Lorpeang village, Ta Ches commune, Kampong Tralach district of Kampong Chhnang and KDC International. Sam Chankea has been ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riel (approx. £160) as well as 3 million riel (approx. £480) in compensation to the company, an excessive amount in relation to the average salary in the country. Charges against Chankea were brought under Article 305 of the new Penal Code. During the drafting of this legislation, both ARTICLE 19 and CCHR have criticised it for falling short of international standards on free expression.

There is growing evidence that the new Penal Code is not only used to silence human rights defenders, but also to undermine the right to freedom of expression of all Khmer citizens. Last week, Reach Seima, a villager from the same area, was similarly convicted under the same provisions of the Penal Code in connection with comments he allegedly made regarding KDC International. He was fined 2 million riel (approx. £320) and ordered to pay 8 million riel (approx. £1,280) in compensation. It is unlikely that he has the financial means to comply with these orders and risks further sanctions if he does not.

In December 2010, an employee of UN World Food Programme, Seng Kunnaka, was convicted under the new legislation for distributing alleged anti-government materials to a few people, less than two weeks after the law had come into effect.

ARTICLE 19 and CCHR call for a review by the Constitutional Council of the Penal Code provisions that criminalise defamation and insult. Such a review can be undertaken at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen, one-tenth of the members of the National Assembly or one-quarter of the Senate.

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