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(New York) - Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior members of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) should stop threatening to orchestrate the removal of lawmakers' parliamentary immunity in order to silence government critics, Human Rights Watch  said today.

In a speech on April 29, 2009, Hun Sen said that it would be "as easy as ABC" to have the parliamentary immunity lifted for Mu Sochua, a National Assembly member. This would permit the government to bring criminal charges against her and prosecute her for publicly criticizing the prime minister. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has summoned Sochua to court on May 7.

"This is yet another blatant attempt to silence the political opposition," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "By threatening to prosecute opposition members of parliament on bogus charges, Hun Sen shows once again that his goal is elective dictatorship, not a genuinely pluralistic democracy."

Under Cambodia's Constitution, members of the National Assembly are immune from prosecution unless the assembly lifts their parliamentary immunity. The CPP has a long history of lifting the parliamentary immunity of opposition figures, though, in order to bring politically motivated criminal charges against them.

Mu Sochua, a member of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) representing Kampot province, is one of the few female members of the National Assembly. On April 23, she and her lawyer announced her intention to file a defamation complaint against the prime minister after he publicly accused an unnamed woman from Kampot of "inciting" problems and acting like a gangster (cheung klang, literally "strong leg," a term considered especially derogatory for women). Sochua had said she was physically manhandled by a CPP military general during the 2008 election campaign. But Hun Sen, in his remarks, contended that she had instead acted provocatively by "rushing to embrace someone" and then complaining that the person had ripped open several of the buttons of her blouse.

The day after Sochua announced her lawsuit, a senior prime ministerial adviser, Om Yentieng, told the press that Hun Sen would counter-sue Sochua, and that all CPP National Assembly members would support lifting her immunity.

Five days later, Hun Sen confirmed that he was suing "a lady," whom he described as "stupid," as well as her lawyer. The lawsuit against Sochua was filed on April 27 by Hun Sen's lawyer, Ky Tech, former president of the Cambodian Bar Association. Ky Tech has also filed a complaint with the Bar Association against Sochua's lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, accusing him of violating the lawyers' code of ethics in this case.

Opposition figures convicted on politically motivated charges after their parliamentary immunity was lifted include Cheam Channy, an SRP member convicted in a biased trial in 2005 on unsubstantiated charges of creating a rebel army, and the party leader, Sam Rainsy, the same year for allegedly defaming government leaders.

"Punishing Mu Sochua is no idle threat as Hun Sen continues to find ways to intimidate the opposition," said Adams. "Threats to prosecute government critics and lawyers are especially difficult to counter in Cambodia, where the courts are controlled by the government. No judge in Cambodia would stand up to Hun Sen."

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