When audio clips purporting to feature deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha conversing with various mistresses appeared online two months ago, they were dismissed by the CNRP as a petty piece of gossip not worthy of a response.
But then a young political activist mentioned in the recordings filed a defamation complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and the case was vigorously taken up by various arms of the CPP government, most notably the Interior Ministry’s anti-terrorism police department.
One alleged mistress, 25-year-old hairdresser Khem Chandaraty, was pulled to the center of an increasingly sinister investigation, with municipal court prosecutors questioning her for four hours on Tuesday before publicly announcing that she finally admitted to the affair.
She was not questioned over the defamation complaint, however. Anti-terrorism police, whose role in the investigation has yet to be explained, recommended charges of prostitution and false testimony after grilling Ms. Chandaraty over the recordings at their Phnom Penh headquarters last month, when she denied that it was her voice in the audio clips.
Y Sok Khy, head of the anti-terrorism police, said last month that his department had been assigned the case by the National Police Commissariat, which acted on an order to investigate from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. The court was ostensibly investigating the defamation suit brought by political activist Thy Sovantha, who is mentioned in an unfavorable light in the recordings.
The circular explanations have proven unsatisfactory to many.
“A defamation case should not have been sent to the anti-terrorism and transnational crime department,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho.
“It’s the first time I’ve seen it, and it’s really strange,” he said, adding, however, that there was an escalation in the arbitrary use of various judicial forces in cases connected to the opposition.
Thida Khus, a prominent women’s rights advocate and vocal supporter of Ms. Chandaraty, also expressed confusion over the assignment.
“It is…very unusual,” she said with a mirthless laugh. “They are using the wrong department to investigate this kind of problem.”
The involvement of the anti-terrorism police was the first piece in a mounting body of proof that Ms. Chandaraty is a victim in a political game, being abused by a corrupt and politically controlled judicial system, she added.
“It can be used against you to create a situation where they can coerce you,” she said, adding that the way the case had been pursued was starkly different from some cases involving much more severe crimes.
“There are many other serious cases that need attention—that need to be investigated,” she said. “The case is baseless.”
The relentless pursuit of Ms. Chandaraty, combined with calls from top-level CPP officials for Mr. Sokha to answer questions about his love life, have left few questions about the political motivations driving the case.
Prime Minister Hun Sen weighed in on the case himself in March, claiming that he had his own photographic proof of the affair saved on his smartphone, going on to lambast Ms. Chandaraty for denying it and to taunt Mr. Sokha.
The hypocrisy of the CPP sounding a moral alarm over the case has not been lost on political observers, given the party’s own history with high-ranking officials finding themselves at the center of rumored sex scandals.
Mr. Hun Sen was himself alleged to have had an affair with dancer and starlet Piseth Pilika, who was murdered by a masked gunman in 1999 in a case that remains unsolved, despite intense public pressure.
French magazine L’Express published an article about diary entries written by Piseth Pilika in the lead-up to her murder, in which she says she was warned that the prime minister’s wife, Bun Rany, was furious and planned to have her killed. Both Mr. Hun Sen and the first lady vigorously denied the claims.
The main use of government resources in that case appears to have been to deny the claims, whereas the officials involved in the frantic investigation into Mr. Sokha’s sex scandal have gone out of their way to provide a blow-by-blow account of their findings.
Deputy municipal court prosecutor Sieng Sok wasted no time on Monday filling in reporters on the details of Ms. Chandaraty’s confession, with the court issuing a statement on Wednesday justifying the release of details of an ongoing investigation because of public interest in the case.
The municipal prosecutor’s office stated that Ms. Chandaraty “admitted that she really had a relationship with Kem Sokha and admitted that the voices in the recordings were hers. She denied this recording before because she was instructed to do so by Kem Sokha.”
Labeling the entire scenario a “farce,” Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said keeping the case in the public eye was a strategic move.
“I believe the Cambodian people have had enough of these cheap games which are designed to trick us into forgetting about the serious human rights issues plaguing Cambodia,” she said via email.
“This is essentially a private matter, and the fact that so many state resources are being put into this investigation underlines how this is nothing more than a politically motivated witch hunt.”