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Saturday, February 26, 2011

Criticism is not a crime, UN tells Cambodia


PHNOM PENH — The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia on Thursday voiced disquiet about a crackdown on freedom of expression in the country and the growing problem of land rights violations.

"I am concerned about the narrowing of space for the people to express their views peacefully and without fear, including those belongings to different political parties," Surya Subedi said at the end of his fourth 10-day fact-finding mission to the country.

The Cambodian government has come under fire from rights groups in recent years for launching a number of defamation and disinformation lawsuits against critics and opposition members.

A controversial new penal code launched in December introduced a string of laws that could see a person jailed or fined for expressing dissenting views.

"Peaceful expression of opinion should not be dealt with under the penal code," Surya said during a press conference in the capital, adding that it was one of the main issues he had discussed with Prime Minister Hun Sen.

"Those holding public positions should be willing to accept criticism for their decisions. Criticism is not a crime but an exercise of freedom of conscience, an act of intelligence," he said.

The UN representative also urged the government to apply the land law properly, saying he was "deeply concerned about plight of the people who are facing the threat of eviction or have been evicted from their land."

He said he had visited several disputed sites, including a lake area in Phnom Penh where thousands of people have been forcibly evicted to make way for a private development project.

Land disputes are a major problem in Cambodia. In 2009 alone, at least 26 cases of mass evictions displaced approximately 27,000 people across the country, according to a UN report issued last year.

During his last visit to the kingdom in June, Surya suggested a host of reforms to improve Cambodia's judicial system, which he said lacked independence.

He told reporters the progress in that area "hasn't been as speedy as it should have been".

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