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Group: Government's Threats to Justice Initiative Dampen Free Speech

Government threats to expel the Open Society Justice Initiative constitute an attack on free speech and point to a "disturbing trend," a group of rights and election agencies said Thursday.

OSJI has faced heavy criticism for calling on an investigation into kickbacks it says Cambodian judges pay in order to sit on the Khmer Rouge tribunal. A government spokesman said this week officials had considered ejecting the group from the country.

The group members "are deeply concerned about the threat made by the Royal Government of Cambodia to expel the Open Society Justice Initiative, an international organization, from the country or to revoke staff visas," the joint statement said.

An expulsion would be against an agreement between the government and the UN that said monitors should have full access to the Extraordinary Chamber in the Courts of Cambodia, as the tribunal is officially called.

"We have a duty to the Cambodian people to assist in securing free, fair and public trials of the Khmer Rouge at the ECCC," the group said. "To do this effectively, we need to have confidence that there will be no reprisal taken by the [government] against any organization in response to its monitoring activities."

The statement was issued by the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, the Cambodian Committee of Women, the Alliance for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

Corruption is rampant in the Cambodian judiciary, but the government has succeeded in including local judges and prosecutors in trials for top Khmer Rouge leaders. This has led to numerous conflicts, as UN-appointed judges often find themselves at odds with their Cambodian counterpoints.

The latest threats, the group said, not only further darken the tribunal proceedings, but also point to an ugly trend in government tactics to hush critics.

"Both the forestry and labor sectors have witnessed the expulsion or threat of expulsion of independent monitors," the group said. "The chilling effect created by these actions threatens to severely limit freedom of expression, access to information and, ultimately, accountability to the public."