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Cambodia; United Nations: Threats to Lawyers Raise Concerns

(July 7, 2009) On July 1, 2009, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Leandro Despouy, expressed concern about a restrictive atmosphere affecting how lawyers represent clients in Cambodia. Some attorneys have themselves faced criminal charges in the course of representing their clients. Despouy explained his concern, stating that 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.” (UN Rights Expert Concerned at Restriction of Lawyers' Freedom in Cambodia, UN NEWS CENTRE, July 1, 2009, available at
.) Despouy reports to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva as an independent expert, without compensation.

The U.N. Rapporteur stated that recently a lawyer working for an opposition member of the Cambodian legislature was charged with criminal defamation when he claimed the legislator had herself been defamed by the Cambodian Prime Minister. The attorney could be expelled from the Cambodian Bar Association as a result. In January 2009, Cambodian judges threatened legal action against defense lawyers working at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), the tribunal established with U.N. assistance to try leaders of the Khmer Rouge, when those defense lawyers called for investigation into allegations of corruption at the ECCC.

Despouy also referred to a case in June 2007 in which the indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri Province were involved in a land dispute with a businesswoman with government ties. The attorneys for the communities were considered to have incited the indigenous groups to have filed their lawsuit, and the lawyers were threatened with possible criminal charges. These cases, Despouy argues, may have a chilling effect on lawyers who “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.” (Id.)

Despouy has further pointed out that lawyers' rights have been outlined in the U.N. Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, which state that lawyers should not be identified with their clients or their clients' causes as a result of discharging their functions. (Id.; art. 18, Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, 1990, website of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, (last visited July 1, 2009).)