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Cambodia urged to drop lawsuit against rights activist

Defamation charge against Soeng Senkaruna highlights deteriorating civic space in Cambodia, rights groups say
Cambodian human rights activist Soeng Senkaruna speaks during a seminar in this undated image. Senkaruna is facing a defamation charge brought by former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen.

Cambodian human rights activist Soeng Senkaruna speaks during a seminar in this undated image. Senkaruna is facing a defamation charge brought by former Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen. (Photo: FORUM-ASIA)

Published: February 20, 2024 03:49 AM GMT
Updated: February 20, 2024 05:25 AM GMT

Two international rights groups have called on the Cambodian government to dismiss what they say is a politically motivated defamation lawsuit against leading human rights defender Soeng Senkaruna.

Senkaruna faces the lawsuit at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and CIVICUS said in a statement on Feb. 19.

The complaint against the deputy head of the Human Rights and Land Rights Section and Senior Human Rights Investigator of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) was brought by Hun Sen, the former Cambodian prime minister and leader of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Hun Sen accused the activist of dishonoring the CCP following the publication of an article on the Cambodia Daily Khmer online news site.

The article quoted Senkaruna as saying that the CPP has often used the country’s judiciary to intimidate the opposition and that political disputes should be resolved politically rather than through courts. 

Hun Sen alleged that Senkaruna’s comments could incite hatred against the party ahead of upcoming Senate elections on Feb 25.

"He did not mean to attack any political party"

CPP lawyers have demanded two billion riels (US$500,000) in compensation. 

Senkaruna’s quote was based on an interview with Radio France International regarding a lawsuit against Son Chhay, vice president of the opposition Candlelight Party, the groups said.

Chhay was convicted of defamation based on a complaint by the CPP and the National Election Committee in relation to his allegations of irregularities and vote rigging against the CCP two in 2022 commune council elections. 

However, Senkaruna claims that the news site misquoted him, clarifying that he did not mean to attack any political party. He stressed that his remarks were focused on strengthening respect for human rights, law, social justice, and democracy.

Later, the Cambodia Daily Khmer published a correction, acknowledging its mistake.

Through Facebook, Hun Sen said the CPP would take anyone who insults the party to court. 

Civic space shrank sharply in Cambodia under Hun Sen's regime who deployed judicial harassment, threats, and online harassment against political opponents, non-governmental organizations and dissenting voices, the groups said.

The government’s crackdown led to convictions against opposition Candlelight Party members, labor leaders and activists who demanded the end of exploitation at NagaWorld casino and hotels and the forced closure of independent media outlets including the Voice of Democracy Cambodia.

"Hun Manet is following in his father’s footsteps"

In response to Hun Sen’s threats against political opponents, the Meta Oversight Board decided to suspend his Facebook account. In retaliation, Hun Sen barred the Oversight Board from entering Cambodia. 

His son and current PM, Hun Manet, is following in his father’s footsteps to exert the authoritarian regime's reach beyond its borders, the groups said.

Recently, three Cambodian activists — Lem Sokha, Phan Phana, and Kung Raiya — were arrested by authorities at the Thai border. They fled Cambodia to escape political persecution; however, they are now at risk of deportation.

The lawsuit against Senkaruna is just among the many cases which reaffirm Cambodia’s deteriorating human rights situation. 

The rights groups called for the dropping of charges against Senkaruna alongside other human rights defenders.

They also urged the government to cease the practice of launching strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP) through defamation, false charges, politically motivated lawsuits, and other repressive laws against those expressing political opinions.

“The Phnom Penh Municipal Court must immediately dismiss the defamation lawsuit against Soeng Senkaruna. The Cambodian Government must ensure that its people can safely and freely express their political opinions without fear of reprisals. The lawsuit is clearly politically motivated and has no bearing on the pursuit of justice,” said Mary Aileen Diez-Bacalso, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

Hun Manet seems to be picking up where his father left off by targeting those critical of the regime, including those from civil society, said Josef Benedict, Asia-Pacific researcher for CIVICUS.

“These actions are inconsistent with Cambodia’s international human rights obligations. The international community must speak out and stand with Soeng Senkaruna and others which the regime is seeking to target and silence,” Benedict added.

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