When SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua walked from the Supreme Court last week after having a defamation verdict upheld against her, media reports centered on her preference for going to jail rather than paying about $4,000 in court-issued fines and compensation to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But jail may not be the only possible punishment handed down to Ms Sochua for not paying her fine: According to Cambodia’s election laws, Ms Sochua’s conviction may prevent her from standing as a candidate at the next national election in 2013.
The same laws may also prevent SRP leader Sam Rainsy from running in the same election. Mr Rainsy is currently in self-exile with a two-year jail term hanging over his head for his role in uprooting demarcation posts at the Cambodia-Vietnam border in Svay Rieng province last year.
Ms Sochua said yesterday she was well aware that her conviction could rule her ineligible to run for election three years from now.
“I am totally aware of the law. The problem is that this is a political case and that the Prime Minister can do anything he wants,” Ms Sochua said.
The Supreme Court last week upheld the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s August verdict that Ms Sochua was guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen-for announcing that she planned to sue him for defamation in April last year. While Ms Sochua’s defamation case against Mr Hun Sen was dismissed by the courts, his case against her went all the way to Supreme Court where his win was considered a fait accompli.
Under the Untac Penal Code, the crime of defamation is listed as a misdemeanor offense.
According to Article 34 of the Law on the Election of the Members of the National Assembly, “persons who are convicted of a felony or misdemeanor by the courts and who have not been rehabilitated” are not eligible to stand for election.
The process of becoming “rehabilitated” is detailed in the Criminal Procedure Code, which states under Article 535 that an application for rehabilitation from a person convicted of a misdemeanor crime can only be submitted to the court three years after the completion of a sentence, or three years from the completion of the prison sentence served in lieu of payment of fines and damages.
By refusing to pay the court-ordered fine and compensation, Ms Sochua said she understood that she may have to go to jail, which would prolong the period of time that she will be ineligible to run as an election candidate.
Under the Criminal Procedure Code, Ms Sochua would face a one-year sentence to be served in lieu of the 16.5 million riel (about $3,930) fine that the court has ordered her to pay.
Mr Hun Sen’s lawyer Ky Tech said on Wednesday that once the Supreme Court’s decision is received by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, he will write to the municipal court, asking them to apply the high court’s decision.
“I will write to the municipal court [asking them] to order Mu Sochua to pay voluntarily,” Mr Tech said. “If she still does not pay, the court has the right to force her to pay or arrest and jail her [in lieu of payment] according to the law,” he said.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights Development Director Rupert Abbott said yesterday that Ms Sochua faced “a real possibility” of being ruled ineligible for the 2013 national election.
“I think that technically speaking, by the letter of the law, there is a real possibility that Mu Sochua will be unable to stand at the next election,” he said. “The law says that you can’t stand unless you have been rehabilitated.”
Under the election laws, Mr Rainsy, the SRP leader, would also be prevented from running for election in 2013 after having been convicted on property damage misdemeanor charges in the Svay Rieng Provincial Court in January. Under the law, Mr Rainsy would have to wait until three years after he completed his two-year jail sentence before applying to be considered “rehabilitated,” meaning the leader of the country’s main opposition party would miss out on candidacy at the national election.
Koul Panha, Committee for Free and Fair Elections executive director, said yesterday that he hoped a solution could be reached that would allow Ms Sochua to maintain her candidacy at the next election.
“Of course I am concerned about the possibility of Mu Sochua not running,” Mr Panha said.
“I hope people will try to find an alternative solution, because otherwise Cambodia will struggle to grow as a legal democracy.”
Yesterday Ms Sochua said she would not be asking for any favors from the premier.
“I am not asking for compassion from the man who runs the country,” she said.
“What I wish most is to live in a country with a strong legal system where people believe that they are protected by the law.”
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)