UN rights expert concerned at restriction of lawyers’ freedom in Cambodia

1 July 2009 – A United Nations independent human rights expert today voiced concern at attempts to curtail lawyers’ freedom to effectively represent their clients in Cambodia, with criminal charges being leveled recently against attorneys in the South-East Asian nation.

“To be able to represent their clients effectively, lawyers should not be subject to threats or intimidation, nor should they be targeted for prosecution or disciplinary action merely for having acted in the interests of their clients,” said Leandro Despouy, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

“Lawyers play an important role as defenders of human rights and must be free to represent their clients as they see fit in accordance with professional standards and the rule of law.”

Last week, he said, a lawyer, working for an opposition member of the National Assembly who alleged that she has been defamed by the country’s Prime Minister, was himself charged with criminal defamation and could be expelled from the Cambodian Bar Association.

This January, he added, defense lawyers representing defendants at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) – the UN-backed tribunal trying Khmer Rouge leaders accused of mass killings and other crimes three decades ago – were threatened with legal action by Cambodian judges for having called for corruption allegations at the tribunal to be properly investigated.

Further, Mr. Despouy noted, in June 2007, attorneys representing indigenous communities in Ratanakiri Province, involved in a land dispute with a businesswoman with ties to the Government, were threatened with criminal charges and disciplinary action for having allegedly “incited” communities to file a suit to reclaim their land.

The expert cautioned that these recent moves against lawyers seem to indicate a worrying new trend which could have a chilling effect on the legal profession, expressing his support and encouragement for the Bar Council and its President “in their efforts to strengthen the legal profession in Cambodia and to defend lawyers against attempts to undermine their independence.”

In a press release, Mr. Despouy, who reports to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council in an independent and unpaid capacity, underscored that Cambodia’s obligations under international law, as laid out in the UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, say that “lawyers should not be identified with their clients or their clients’ causes as a result of discharging their functions.”


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