United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has voiced serious concern about the defamation proceedings against an opposition politician in Cambodia, saying they highlight an “alarming” erosion of fundamental freedoms in the South-East Asian nation.
Mu Sochua – who is a serving member of the Cambodian Parliament, a former women’s affairs minister and a prominent women’s rights defender – was convicted last August for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen when she announced in April that she would sue him for derogatory comments he made about her.
The Prime Minister’s comments included a reference to the unbuttoning of Mu Sochua’s blouse and another reference of a sexual nature that led her to bring a defamation case against him.
Her case against the Prime Minister was dismissed, her parliamentary immunity lifted and she was then found guilty of defamation. Her conviction was upheld by the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court, despite the fact that no evidence proving either damage to reputation or malicious intent was presented during the case.
The court imposed a fine on Mu Sochua and awarded damages to the Prime Minister. She has until 16 July to pay the fine, which she has refused to do.
“We believe this highly politicized case appears to show an alarming erosion of both freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia,” Rupert Colville of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) told reporters in Geneva.
“Mu Sochua now stood on the verge of imprisonment for merely exercising her legal right to express her view that she was defamed and her intention to seek a legal remedy,” he noted.
“The criminal justice system was the bedrock of human rights protection. However, in this case it had become a blunt instrument to silence freedom of expression.”
OHCHR believes the use of offensive language towards women in the Prime Minister’s statement deserved a response from the courts, Mr. Colville added.