Analysts and rights defenders in Cambodia have reacted strongly against the imprisonment of human rights workers over allegations of bribery.
The comments come on the heels of a Phnom Penh Municipal Court summons for analyst Ou Virak, expected to appear before the court on May 12, followed by a defamation complaint filed by ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan last week demanding $100,000 in compensation.
In late April, Virak, the head of local think-tank called the Future Forum, was quoted on local media saying that the CPP had orchestrated the sexual scandal between Khom Chandaraty and opposition leader Kem Sokha.
The lawsuit, filed on Monday last week, just hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen posted on his Facebook a threat of legal action against anyone who criticized the CPP.
Civil society groups yesterday said the lawsuit was a sign of diminishing freedom of expression in the Kingdom.
Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor at local human rights group Licadho, told VOA Khmer Monday that he saw the political tension in Cambodia leading to increasing pressure on freedom of speech.
“This complaint is a message saying that all criticism and expression are restricted and need to be rethought. This is a message to threaten all the people, who criticized and expressed their opinion,” Sam Ath said, adding that the lawsuit appeared to happen faster than other lawsuits, and the lawsuit against the analyst showed that the government had strayed from the rule of law and democracy.
Political analyst and researcher Kem Ley said the lawsuit was a poor interpretation of Cambodian law, because “it does not make sense” to sue someone for expressing an opinion.
“I am not a law expert, but this is not making any sense,” said Ley. “If we do politics or create a political party, we need to be open to criticism. If we do politics, create a political party without accepting any public opinion and criticism, it would be better for us to work on a cassava plantation, where there is no critics.”
Ley said the ruling party should not use defamation lawsuits to put pressure on freedom of expression.
“We should give clear definitions of defamation and we should not use defamation lawsuits to suppress freedom of expression and public participation, because it was just an analytical opinion, which could be right or wrong,” he said.
Virak told VOA Khmer that he would appear in court as ordered on May 12.
“It’s very sad that we spoil the [political] environment instead of debating social issues, including drought, the death of fishes and livestock, which our people are facing now. Those are much more important than my issue,” Virak said.
CPP spokesman Eysan, who will also appear in court on Friday, said the lawsuit said the lawsuits were an expression of the legal process in Cambodia.
“No, they cannot accuse us in that way. If he did not violate ethics, violating the principal of freedom of expression, there is no problem.”
The lawsuit comes amid increased political tension and heightened criticism from international organizations and governments.