Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua faced the court over her defamation suit with the prime minister on Friday without a lawyer. After her first attorney quit—facing defamation charges himself—she was unable to find another, she said, due to “political pressure.”
Cambodian lawyers say they are free to represent the clients they want, but Mu Sochua’s case has underscored the entanglement of politics and the court that critics say stops the judiciary from being independent.
“There is no problem as long as the client approaches us,” said Cambodian attorney Poeung Thida. “We just puck up a client we feel we want to defend. If we don’t want it, we just don’t take the case. This is our free will.”
In Mu Sochua’s case, her first attorney, Kong Sam Onn, quit after he was countersued by Prime Minister Hun Sen and was put under investigation by the country’s bar association. His case was dropped after he apologized to Hun Sen. (Kong Sam Onn declined to comment, saying he left because of a “personal issue.”)
Mu Sochua defended herself with a brief statement to the court, in a case that is to be decided on Aug. 4.
Chiv Song Hak, president of the 647-member bar association, said lawyers in the country have “enough freedom” to make their own choices.
“The law does not restrict them to only representing this client and not the other,” he said. “Our code of conduct only states that a lawyer has the right to decline a client they don’t want to represent.”
Mu Sochua, a US-Cambodian citizen and deputy secretary-general for the Sam Rainsy Party, said she did not agree.
“How can a lawyer do his job if they still feel scared?” she asked. “They still feel that they will become a victim like my lawyer, Kong Sam Onn. I see that professional lawyers are vulnerable to political pressure.”
Mu Sochua had also sought legal counsel from the Cambodian Defenders Project, but the head of the organization, Sok Sam Oeun, said his group defends the poor.
“She has enough money to hire a lawyer,” he said of Mu Sochua. “And so far as I know, there are many lawyers in the Sam Rainsy Party. To say that there is no lawyer willing to represent her is unreasonable.”