PHNOM PENH // Mu Sochua, an opposition parliamentarian and one-time Nobel Prize nominee, will have to defend herself in court next Friday, as no lawyer is willing to defend her against a lawsuit filed by the Cambodian prime minister. "I intend to put the justice system on trial," she said in an interview at the headquarters of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). "We have a court totally under control of the executive branch and we expect the country to move forward?"
Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, dismissed her claims that the courts are biased. But the accusations have gained traction among human rights groups, as well as donor countries, which pledged almost US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) in aid last year. The government has launched at least nine criminal lawsuits in recent months against politicians, journalists and activists. Critics such as Human Rights Watch accuse the ruling Cambodia People's Party of using the legal system to silence opposition voices.
In a major blow to the opposition, a newspaper loyal to the SRP stopped publication after a decade last Friday. Its editor-in-chief, Dam Sith, wrote a letter of apology to the prime minister offering to shutter the paper in the hope that the government would drop criminal charges against him. The editor of another opposition paper is serving a year in prison after being convicted of disinformation last month.
"The pillars of democracy - parliament, the media and lawyers - have all been targeted," said Om Virak, president of the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. "These are signs that the government is trying to consolidate power." Mr Virak fears that the ruling party is trying to create a one-party state modelled on Vietnam or China, an accusation the government strongly denied. "The government doesn't have a plan to crack down on opposition," said Mr Phay, adding that officials do not want to see journalists jailed.
He said the government has a responsibility to rein in irresponsible media, pointing to an incident in 2000 when protesters sacked the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh after media carried stories critical of Thailand. "We need to be very cautious about information that could incite violence," he said. But critics say the national security argument falls apart when one examines the cases. For example, Moeung Sonn, chairman of the Khmer Civilization Foundation, was sentenced on Tuesday to a two-year jail term for disinformation after criticising a light installation project at the Angkor Wat temple complex. During a May 26 press conference, he suggested that heat from the lights could damage the 11th-century ruins.
International donors, who contribute about half of Cambodia's national budget, have largely remained silent until now, but Human Rights Watch and others have urged them to use their leverage against abuses by the government. An official at the British Embassy said Andrew Mace, the ambassador, did not wish to comment publicly on the spate of lawsuits while he was discussing it privately with the Cambodian government.
Britain's department of international development announced on June 30 that it plans to close its Phnom Penh office and gradually withdraw its support before then. The office released a statement explaining that "UK aid could have a larger impact on reducing poverty elsewhere in the world where there are greater numbers of poor people and fewer international donors". Ms Mu said the decision may have been motivated in part by dissatisfaction with the Cambodian government, adding that discussions with British officials suggested as much. "I know for sure, at a local level, they didn't see progress," she said.
On May 30, the US ambassador, Carol Rodley, made a speech claiming that corruption costs Cambodia about $500 million each year in lost revenue. That prompted angry denials from government officials. Transparency International, a non-governmental organisation that tracks corruption, ranked Cambodia 166 out of 180 countries on its 2008 corruption index. A 2006 report by Freedom House, a US-based NGO, said Cambodia loses about 10 per cent of its GDP to corruption. The report also called the judicial system "arguably the country's most corrupt institution".
Ms Mu said corruption would only increase if the government were to succeed in silencing its critics. "They really wish I would go away," she said, noting that she holds a US passport after spending years there as a refugee from the Khmer Rouge regime, which killed her parents. "I always wanted to go home; that is why I'm here. I won't leave. I will go to jail if I have to." Ms Mu's case involves comments that Hun Sen, the prime minister, allegedly made during a speech. She claims he used a term that, in the Cambodian language, carries connotations that degraded her character. She brought defamation charges against him, but the prime minister counter-sued, also using defamation. The courts dismissed her lawsuit against him, and her defence lawyer stepped down. She and others claim that the lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, was under intense pressure by the authorities.
Mr Phay, the government spokesman, denied that there was any pressure. He said: "I feel that he thought she was a troublemaker and he walked away." Mr Phay accused Ms Mu of trying to incite violence by undermining confidence in the justice system. "It's not her job to tell the world that the court is corrupt," he said. "Does she want people to take the law into their own hands and kill people on the street or what?"
Ms Mu said she has little chance of a fair trial but she said it was important to stand up to the government, which has also filed charges against another member of her party. Last month an opposition party youth activist was convicted of criminal defamation after writing anti-government slogans on the walls of his house, which was due to be demolished to make way for a development on land owned by a ruling party senator.