By Tim Johnston
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
BANGKOK -- A heightened crackdown on journalists and opposition activists in recent weeks by Cambodia's leaders has provoked new concern that the government is engaging in widespread abuse of the nation's legal system to muzzle its detractors.
Newspaper editor Hang Chakra is serving a one-year sentence in Phnom Penh's notorious Prey Sar prison for articles that alleged corruption among government officials. Opposition activist Moeung Sonn, who heads the Khmer Civilization Foundation, fled the country last month after being given a two-year sentence because government officials feared unrest when he questioned whether a new lighting system would damage the revered Angkor Wat temple. Last week, a court heard charges against Ho Vann, a member of parliament from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party who is accused of slandering 22 generals by questioning their academic qualifications.
And on Friday, a court is to hand down its verdict in a case against Mu Sochua, another opposition member of parliament, who is accused of defaming Cambodia's authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen.
"I'm sure I will be found guilty, unless there is some magic in the air, and I don't feel that it is," Mu Sochua said in a telephone interview.
The cases have caused growing concern among human rights activists about Cambodia's legal system, which has long been accused of political bias.
"The Cambodian government is imposing its most serious crackdown on freedom of expression in recent years," Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week.
The case against Mu Sochua, a mother of three and former minister for women and veterans affairs, has brought the concern to a head because she is the first person to challenge Hun Sen so openly.
In a lawsuit, she accused Hun Sen of calling her "strong leg" -- a term considered derogatory in Khmer culture -- in a speech in early April. When he declined to apologize, she called a news conference and declared that his comment was an insult to all Cambodian women. That provoked a countersuit from Hun Sen. The courts have thrown out her lawsuit, but Hun Sen's is ongoing.
"If he allowed Mu Sochua to challenge him, other people might go down the same path. It is to make sure a second person won't try the same thing in the future," said Son Chhay, another outspoken opposition member of parliament.
Mu Sochua is fighting her legal battle alone. Her attorney withdrew last month after he came under government pressure, provoking a protest from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"The government kept on slamming him with more and more penalties, and he was facing the end of his career," Mu Sochua said. "I am not going to put another lawyer through that torture."
If convicted, she is likely to face a fine of about $2,500. But, more important, she could lose the right to sit in parliament, and that could be Hun Sen's intent, analysts said.
His ruling Cambodian People's Party won 90 of 123 seats in parliament in elections last year, but analysts said Hun Sen could be using the courts to get rid of the opposition.
"He wants to put them out of business," said David Chandler, a history professor at Monash University in Australia. "The whole concept of pluralism hasn't got any roots in Cambodia. The opposition is almost, by definition, disloyal."
Son Chhay said the recent crackdown is a symptom of a government that is failing to address some of the pressing issues facing the country, including corruption, land seizures and economic stagnation.
"Although they control the institutions, they can't allow activists or the opposition to spread the issues -- that could bring disaster. Like many dictatorial regimes in the region, because they are unable to solve the problems, they resort to all measures to control the people and shut them up," Son Chhay said.
The government also is looking to pass a law that would limit demonstrations to 200 people and require permission from authorities.
In the early 1990s, the international community invested about $1.5 billion in a U.N. effort to restore civil government to a country that Hun Sen, a former member of the Khmer Rouge, had run since 1985.
The opposition fears that he is destroying fragile institutions that have taken years to build.
"What is really detrimental to Cambodia as a whole is that because he wants to make a point as a man, he is destroying so much we have invested in nation-building," Mu Sochua said. "It is not me on trial, but the judiciary of Cambodia."