Cambodia’s political drama serves up encore in court as lawsuits fly

The curtain has come down on Cambodia’s year-long political crisis but the stage is set for an encore in the courts with leaders serving lawsuits on each other and their critics.

Political life was halted as the country’s three main parties rowed over the make-up of a new government following inconclusive national elections in July 2003.

The crisis was finally settled in July this year but political leaders continue to battle on in the courts, riling the king and ordinary Cambodians who just want to see their leaders get on with governing.

Premier Hun Sen led the lawsuit charge in January with a five million-dollar defamation claim in Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt courts against opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Rainsy had claimed that the premier was the brains behind the assassination of top union boss Chea Vichea, who was gunned down in Phnom Penh in January.

The opposition leader retaliated with his own suit, this time alleging that Hun Sen masterminded a 1997 grenade attack on his supporters.

Little progress occurred in either case until late last month after the political crisis ended, with Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s royalist party joining Hun Sen’s new administration.

Rainsy was grilled in a closed-door session over the defamation suit while prosecutors questioned Hun Sen over involvement in the 1997 attack.

Last week, opposition and royalist leaders threatened suits against each other and their critics over sizzling allegations of corruption and bribery.

"I had thought that once the government was formed, our leaders would concentrate on the program that they had worked out and agreed upon," said Lao Mong Hay, political analyst from the Centre for Social Development.

Instead, he said, the leaders "are spending their time preoccupied with public opinion in courts with the lawsuits. It’s not good for the country."

The flurry of cases has also annoyed Cambodia’s influential king.

"This issue, I am not satisfied with… I believe we should solve this problem and reconcile so we do not have these issues at court any more," King Norodom Sihanouk told Hun Sen and Ranariddh at a weekend meeting.

But after their explanations, he softened his stance. "So these lawsuits must be filed — if they are not, reputations will be damaged. The issue of honour is very important," he said.

Hang Puthea, director of election monitoring group Nicfec, said the court battles were being waged with a strategic eye on the 2008 election.

"Everything they do is in preparation for the next election. The results from the court mean nothing — Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy have their own agendas."

Rainsy wants people to see him as a fearless leader, while Hun Sen, accused of wielding strong political influence on Cambodia’s judiciary, wants people to believe he is innocent of any wrongdoing, Hang Puthea added.

Sok Sam Oeun, director of legal aid group the Cambodian Defenders Project, predicted the suits would be dropped.

"In the end it will end by political means — at the last moment, all of them will withdraw the lawsuits," he said.

One senior diplomat said at least the politicians were using the creaking court system rather than resorting to the violence that has scarred the country’s recent past.

"The wider perspective is that people are turning to the law courts as a way of resolving disputes, rather than pulling out guns and shooting each other," he told AFP.

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