Cambodian conviction signals crackdown on dissent

A court found opposition member Mu Sochua guilty of defaming the prime minister. Observers say it fits a pattern of assault on political criticism and free speech in the young democracy.

Heng Sinith/AP
Mu Sochua, a Cambodian opposition party lawmaker, gestures in front of the Phnom Penh Municipality Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Tuesday.

A Cambodian court found a prominent politician guilty of defaming the country's prime minister Thursday in what analysts call a setback on Cambodia's shaky path to democracy. The conviction of Mu Sochua, an outspoken member of the opposition, amplifies a pattern of assault on political dissent and free speech, say the analysts.

"This is a reversal of hard-won freedoms, to have a member of Parliament threatened and sued," says Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch based in Phnom Penh, the capital.

Ms. Sochua's ordeal, which has polarized Cambodia's political landscape for months, began with an act of defiance. In April, during a public address in Kampot Province, Prime Minister Hun Sen derided the province's parliamentarian by calling her a cheung klang  – literally "a strong leg" in English, a term considered highly offensive to women.

Mr. Sen did not mention Sochua by name, but Kampot is her province, making the inference clear. Sochua says it was retaliation for her public criticism of Sen's policies.

Sochua did the unthinkable in a country where Sen rules virtually unchallenged: she sued him for defamation. But her case was thrown out by the courts, and Sen countersued her for defaming him. His case the court accepted.

It soon became a David-versus-Goliath showdown. At stake is the essence of Cambodia's experiment in democracy, particularly the rights of elected officials to confront the ruling party, Sochua says.

Many agree. At its height, the case brought the diplomats of the United States, Germany, France, and Britain out to show support for Sochua. Sen responded with a stiff message: Stay out of Cambodian politics.

Following decades of civil war, Cambodia turned to democracy under the administration of the United Nations in 1993. It has made steady progress toward liberal democracy, but always under the rule of Sen, whom critics accuse of stifling civil liberties in the name of political stability.

Sochua's case is not the only one of its kind. In recent weeks, Sen has launched eight defamation cases against opponents, effectively turning the courts into a political weapon to silence critics, observers say.

"I don't see the courts as neutral," says Meas Nee, an independent analyst based in Phnom Pehn. "The whole court system is being manipulated to be on the side of the ruling party."

Some of the criticism in question is surprisingly mundane: One critic questioned the wisdom of Sen's drive to boost tourism to Angkor Wat, the county's famed temples. The lights being affixed to the ancient stone – to lure visitors at night – were damaging the buildings, he said. Sen called the critique an attempt to incite an antigovernment campaign, and sued.

Given the trend, few were surprised when the court found Sochua guilty, least of all Sochua herself. "When I filed the lawsuit, I knew I would never win," she said in a recent interview. "I knew the option was jail."

Sochua has been fined $4,000. If she refuses to pay – and she insists she will refuse – she risks going to jail. She says it is not a prospect that daunts her.

"I am not preparing for my going to jail with my head down," she says. "I am preparing to walk to jail with my head up. You know, I tell my constituents: If you believe in ghosts, then ghosts will haunt you. And fear is the ghost. When you are so determined of what you want, then you do not fear. You are at peace."

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