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Drop false charges against Cambodian human rights defender

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(BANGKOK, 24 January 2011) The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) condemns the false charges filed against Mr Sam Chankea, provincial coordinator of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC). Mr. Chankea is a human rights defender active in land rights issues in Kampong Chhnang province. He was charged with defamation under Article 63 of Cambodia’s Transitional Criminal Law and Article 305 of the New Penal Code by the KDC International Company, a development company allegedly owned by Lauk Chumteav Chea Kheng, the wife of the Minister of Mining and Energy in Cambodia. Because of the charges against him, Mr. Chankea appeared before the Kampong Chhnang Provincial Court on 18 January 2011.

The complaint against Mr. Sam Chankea stems from a radio interview on Radio Free Asia (RFA) on 26 December 2009. In this interview he expressed legal opinion on an ongoing land case in Kampong Chhnang between 108 families and the KDC International Company. Since the dispute is still unresolved, Mr. Sam Chankea considered the activity of land leveling by the KDC Company as an unlawful act. He stated that “what the company has done is an act of violation since the court has yet to rule on the merits of the case. Therefore the company should suspend the activity and await the ruling on the merits of the case”.

Cambodia is a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the right to freedom of expression is protected under Article 19(2) of the Covenant. It is expressly stated there that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.” The right to freedom of expression is also protected under Article 41 of the Constitution of Cambodia, which states that “Khmer citizens shall have freedom of expression, press, publication, and assembly.” This right, however, can be subject to certain limitations, such as those provided by law and those that are necessary “for the protection of national security or of public order.”

Article 63 of Cambodia’s Transitional Criminal Law and Article 305 of the New Penal Code are meant to be limitations of this right. However, calls have been made in the past by several human rights groups for the repeal of these two defamation laws on the ground that these laws are not lawful derogations of the right to freedom of expression. A close inspection of the two defamation laws reveals provisions that are too broad and ambiguous. This means that there would be great potential for the misuse and abuse of the two laws, which would lead towards an unlawful infringement of the very right itself. The UN Human Rights Committee, in its General Comment No. 10, explains that “when a State party imposes certain restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, these may not put in jeopardy the right itself.”

FORUM-ASIA believes that the present case is an example of the abuse of these defamation laws by a non-state actor. The statement of Mr Sam Chankea is a mere expression of opinion and a valid criticism of the acts of KDC International Company. If the case is made to prosper, this would send a chilling effect upon human rights defenders who work to expose abuses committed by businesses in Cambodia, especially those involved in land-grabbing and other acts in violation of the rights of Cambodian citizens. This case is a clear illustration of the defamation laws being used to silence dissenting and critical voices of human rights defenders.

Furthermore, Mr Sam Chankea was well within his rights as a human rights defender to speak publicly on his opinion on a human rights issue. Under Article 6(b) of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, he has the right to freely impart his views on all human rights and fundamental freedoms.

FORUM-ASIA demands that the charges against Mr. Sam Chankea be dropped immediately and calls upon the Kampong Chhnang provincial Court to dismiss the case and acknowledge the fact that the defamation charges against Mr. Sam Chankea are clearly intended to hinder his work as a human rights defender.

FORUM-ASIA also urges the government of Cambodia to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders who face reprisals because of the use of their right to freedom of expression and repeal its defamation laws, which have clearly been used largely to silence the voices of human rights defenders.


Contact Person

Ms Emerlynne Gil of the Human Rights Defenders Department, FORUM-ASIA, Email: [email protected], Tel. no. +66 8 40923575