By Chak Sopheap
Published: August 19, 2009
Niigata, Japan — In a true democracy, freedom of expression is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution. In Cambodia, however, repeated violations of this right by the government to silence critics are jeopardizing the pace of democracy.
The arrest and imprisonment of many human rights activists since the end of 2005 and early 2006 have been a big setback for democracy in Cambodia. Activists like Kem Sokha, former president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and president of the Human Rights Party; Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center; Mom Sonando, founder of Beehive Radio; and Pa Ngoun Teang, former director of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights’ Voice of Democracy radio and current president of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media have been imprisoned on charges ranging from defaming the government to promoting freedom of expression.
Many other prominent activists, including politicians like Sam Rainsy of the Sam Rainsy Party, have fled overseas for fear of being arrested by the government.
Following many appeals from international and local nongovernmental organizations and pressure from the international community, the Cambodian government has released the activists and promised to decriminalize defamation charges levied against them.
Despite that, in a surprise move, a new law was introduced to silence the voice of parliamentarians. It is similar to the U.N. Transitional Authority for Cambodia Law of 1992, which was used in the past to detain government critics on charges of criminal defamation.
The newly adopted Statute of Parliamentarians contradicts the Constitution, which states that no assembly member shall be prosecuted, detained or arrested because of opinions expressed while exercising his or her duties. Article 5 of the new law, however, takes away that protection if a parliamentarian is found to be abusing an individual's dignity, social customs, public order or national security – without clarifying what constitutes these acts. How can parliamentarians exercise their duties when they fear arrest?
The situation has become worse with the government using various ill-defined laws and the judiciary it controls as a political tool to silence critics. Government officials have filed recent lawsuits against political activists including members of the Sam Rainsy Party, Mu Sochua and Ho Vann, and other prominent journalists and individuals. These activists had raised their voices and concerns against the mismanagement of public services, with the constructive aim of remedying the situation.
Judges have ruled most of these cases in favor of the government officials without following independent court procedures. The case of Mu Sochua is proof that Cambodia’s courts and other public institutions function only to appease the rulers.
In April, Sochua announced that she would sue Prime Minister Hun Sen for allegedly using derogatory and threatening language against her in a speech he made during a visit to Kampot province in southwest Cambodia in March. Kampot is the parliamentary district represented by Soucha. However, the court rejected her case while a counter case filed by her opponent was allowed.
Another case of abuse of court and power was shown by a provincial judge in Ratanakiri province in northeastern Cambodia. Instead of fulfilling his function to resolve a case, he appealed to a human rights organization to remove its two provincial staff, who were involved in the court case, to end the story.
The continuous abuse of the court system and public institutions will weaken the rule of law, making it difficult to sustain democracy in Cambodia. If the government can arrest, sue and fine political opponents and human right activists for their criticisms of state policies, then the judges in the country are also not immune from such action, which then poses a serious threat to democracy and public confidence.
Therefore, the government should review its policies and procedures to improve human rights protections and the rule of law. This will help Cambodia to comply with its Constitution and other international rights covenants, and commit to fully democratize society.
(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)