SACRAMENTO, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)--Last week, Mu Sochua, the embattled Cambodian opposition lawmaker and longtime women's rights activist, left the United States facing an Oct. 2 court date in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
There, she will be appealing a guilty verdict in what human rights supporters have denounced as a sham trial.
She may also risk arrest for calling attention to human rights violations in Cambodia during her U.S. tour, which consisted of approximately 15 appearances, including a private meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sept. 10.
Just before her meeting with Clinton, Sochua gave an address in Washington, D.C., to the Tom Lantos Commission on Human Rights, a nonpartisan group that advocates for international human rights.
In her address, Sochua described an alarming freefall in Cambodian democracy. She said she is particularly concerned about the surge in criminal prosecutions for defamation and disinformation against peaceful critics of the government over the past six months. She also said the core human rights violation in Cambodia today are "land grabs," particularly by the military, in the rural provinces.
Sochua's parliamentary immunity was lifted when she was sued by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen for defamation, in response to a suit she had pressed against him, also for defamation.
'I Can Be Arrested Any Time'
"When I go home I can be arrested any time," Sochua said on Sept. 15 in Sacramento. She was addressing the World Affairs Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to expanding public understanding of international issues. "By speaking out like this in Cambodia the reports in government are that I'm a traitor and can be sued, and the sentence for this could be 20 years to life."
The Cambodian member of parliament and internationally known leader in women's rights was found guilty on Aug. 4 of defamation against Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the majority Cambodian People's Party. Cambodian human rights groups denounced the verdict as politically biased.
After meeting with Clinton, Sochua reiterated to her audiences across the United States, including the one in Sacramento, that she pressed the top U.S. diplomat to make future U.S. economic aid contingent upon taking action to end human rights abuses.
The office of Melanne Verveer, ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, states that Verveer had been planning a trip to Cambodia to look into women's issues, including unemployment due to the current global economic crisis.
When Sochua heard that Verveer might be coming to Cambodia, she asked Clinton if the ambassador-at-large could also look into some of the issues that Sochua raised regarding the rule of law and freedom of speech.
In her Sept. 15 Sacramento address, Sochua encouraged supporters to petition Clinton to keep her promise about sending a special envoy to investigate human rights abuses.
Cambodia receives approximately $1 billion in annual foreign aid, of which $59 million is from the United States.
Alliance Dating to Beijing
Sochua and Clinton met in 1995 at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, said Alyse Nelson, executive director of Vital Voices, a Washington, D.C.-based women's leadership organization. Nelson says the two leaders have met several times in the ensuing 14 years. Clinton is a co-founder of Vital Voices, along with Madeline Albright, the secretary of state during the Clinton presidency.
Vital Voices gave Sochua a human rights global leadership award in 2005, presented by Clinton, who was then a U.S. Senator from New York. Nelson says Clinton has shown enduring support of Sochua and a willingness to "stand up for what she believes in."
Phay Siphan, secretary of state and spokesperson for the Cambodian Council of Ministers, harshly criticized Sochua's U.S. tour as a betrayal of the country. He was quoted by Radio Free Asia as calling her "a traitor to her oath taken before she occupied her position as a member of parliament."
Cambodia's majority People's Party defended its prime minister. "Prime Minister Hun Sen has always enhanced the reputation and honor of the National Assembly at national and international levels and promoted debates in the adoption of laws without prejudice," said a media statement by the party, which was published by Phnom Penh Post following Sochua's address to the Tom Lanton Commission on Human Rights.
Stephanie Guyer-Stevens is executive producer of Outer Voices. She has been documenting female leaders in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands since 2003.
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