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(New York) - Cambodia's ruling party should cease its threats, harassment, and spurious legal action against opposition members of parliament and lawyers defending free expression, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 22, 2009, the National Assembly is expected to decide whether to strip the parliamentary immunity of Mu Sochua, a member of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and one of the assembly's few female members. Stripping Sochua's immunity would allow a criminal defamation case against her to go forward. The case is based on a complaint by Prime Minister Hun Sen of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), who has also brought defamation charges against her lawyer.

"Hun Sen has a long history of trying to muzzle Cambodia's political opposition and undermine the independence of the legal profession," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This most recent case should be ringing alarm bells among Cambodia's donors, particularly those who fund judicial and legal reform."

On April 23, Sochua and her lawyer announced her intention to file a defamation complaint against Hun Sen for allegedly making derogatory comments about her, accusing her of "inciting" problems and acting like a gangster. Hun Sen responded by filing defamation suits against both Sochua and her lawyer, Kong Sam On.

On June 10, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court dismissed Sochua's lawsuit against the prime minister, claiming that no defamation occurred, while continuing to process his counter-suit against her.

Kong Sam On, one of the few private lawyers in Cambodia willing to represent opposition officials in high-profile court cases, is also being targeted for his involvement in the case. In addition to Hun Sen's defamation suit against him, Hun Sen's lawyer, Ky Tech, has filed a complaint with the Cambodian Bar Association accusing Kong Sam On of violating the lawyers' code of ethics.

The supposedly independent Bar Association has historically been subject to interference by senior government officials. In 2005, for example, the politically controlled court system overturned the election of an independent candidate as president of the Bar Association, who was replaced by Ky Tech, the government-backed candidate.

"Kong Sam On faces being suspended or even disbarred for simply representing the interests of his client," said Adams. "This will have a chilling effect on Cambodia's legal profession and the willingness of lawyers to represent the opposition party or other people who file complaints against government officials."

Other SRP members of parliament may also be under threat. Since late April when Sochua filed her lawsuit, government and ruling party officials have filed a series of lawsuits against individuals affiliated with the SRP. These include a defamation suit by the Phnom Penh Municipal Governor against party leader Sam Rainsy; a suit by a group of military officers against SRP parliamentarian Ho Vann, alleging defamation and incitement; and a suit by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An against Heng Chakra, editor of an SRP-affiliated newspaper, alleging incitement.

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 Sam Rainsy himself the same year for allegedly defaming government leaders.

"These lawsuits are a clear attempt to intimidate the opposition and prevent members of parliament from exercising free expression," said Adams. "Even by Cambodian standards, the state of freedom of expression and democratic rights is growing more fragile by the day."

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