Facing fears, SRP lawmaker says she is ready for jail
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay yesterday denounced criminal defamation proceedings against SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, saying the Cambodian courts had become “a blunt instrument” to stifle free speech.
The statement came as a deadline approaches this week for Ms Sochua to pay a fine for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen, failing which she may be jailed.
“We believe that this highly politicized case appears to show an alarming erosion of both freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary in Cambodia,” a spokesman for the high commissioner’s office said in a statement to reporters in Geneva.
“Criminal law is still used to stifle freedom of speech in many countries. And that very much appears to be the situation in the case of Mu Sochua in Cambodia.”
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that a government response would be issued today.
“The report has been made by the UN chief in Geneva. It is not a reflection of the facts in Cambodia,” he said, saying the statement could jeopardize the high commissioner’s credibility.
The statement demonstrated the heightened level of international attention that Ms Sochua’s case has drawn as the lawmaker faces imprisonment this week. Under a court-imposed deadline, Ms Sochua is required to pay a fine of about $2,125 by Thursday as a result of last year’s defamation conviction.
Ms Sochua said yesterday that she was ready to be locked up for failing to pay.
“Mentally, emotionally and physically, I am prepared for jail,” Ms Sochua said by telephone from Battambang province yesterday.
“I have looked at the possibility of time in jail straight in the eye for over a year now, and I have faced my fears.”
Despite her own expectations that she will be jailed soon after the deadline passes, Ms Sochua said yesterday that she still held hope that another solution can be found.
“The solution is for the government—and I mean the court which is controlled by the government—to go back and reconsider whether this was a fair trial,” she said.
“It is not too late…. I call on the aid community and the government and everyone else to sit down and start talking about reforming the judiciary. This is not about my case, this is about providing security to the Cambodian people.”
Last month, the Supreme Court upheld the municipal court’s August verdict that Ms Sochua was guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen last April. Ms Sochua, the municipal court concluded, defamed the prime minister by announcing her intention to sue the premier for defamation after Mr Hun Sen made remarks that Ms Sochua considered insulting and directed at her personally.
As part of her sentence, Ms Sochua was ordered to pay a court fine of roughly $2,125 to the National Treasury, as well as about $2,000 in compensation to Mr Hun Sen. She has steadfastly refused to pay either amount.
By law, Ms Sochua faces six months in jail if she does not pay the fine. As a civil party, Mr Hun Sen cannot request that Ms Sochua be jailed for nonpayment of compensation until after he and his lawyer exhaust other avenues for obtaining the money, including seizure of her assets.
While Ms Sochua said she saw imprisonment as a fait accompli, government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said in an e-mail yesterday that he was not so sure.
“As far as I knew, the judge didn’t pronounce yet on the case,” Mr Kanharith wrote. “And I don’t think there will be [a] jail sentence [in] this case.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Sok Roeun said yesterday that he would not comment on what action the court may take until after the expiration of the payment deadline on Thursday.
“Please do not ask me now. You should ask me when the order deadline” expires, Mr Roeun said.
Since the Supreme Court upheld the defamation conviction last month, however, the municipal court has closely followed legal procedure in its orders for Ms Sochua to pay the fine and compensation.
Under criminal procedure, if the convicted person fails to pay a fine before the final deadline, the prosecutor “shall issue a special detention order.”
While not commenting directly on the possible detention of Ms Sochua, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights released a research paper yesterday criticizing the lack of independence of judiciary in relation to the lawmaker’s conviction.
The paper pointed out that several judges involved directly or indirectly in Ms Sochua’s case were senior members of the ruling CPP.
“The required laws and policy changes have been spelled out numerous times…. However, the [government] has responded contemptuously towards previous reports that link the failures of the judiciary to political interference,” the CCHR paper said.
Among CCHR’s recommendations was a call for people to write to King Norodom Sihamoni, asking him to use his constitutional powers to pardon Ms Sochua, to investigate political interference in the judiciary and work with the government to ensure that the Supreme Council of Magistracy was a multi-partisan body.
But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said yesterday that Ms Sochua’s fate was a decision for the court alone.
“It is a decision for the court, and no one else can challenge it,” Mr Siphan said. “This is a personal case between Mu Sochua and Prime Minister Hun Sen.”
As for Ms Sochua’s belief that a solution could be reached, Mr Siphan said he did not think it would be possible.
“I think that now this is beyond the control of the government,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)