Though a deadline has passed to sue for defamation in France, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his family have at least eight more months to decide whether to file suit against the magazine L’Ex-press for publishing accusations his wife ordered the murder of Piseth Pilika, one of his legal advisers in Paris said Monday.
Hun Sen and his family could still sue under a statute alleging “offense to a head of state,” the adviser said.
L’Express Magazine issued a statement Jan 31 announcing that Hun Sen had missed a deadline to sue for articles published in October—an action the office of the prime minister promised to pursue in a point by point rebuttal soon after the articles were published.
The L’Express articles detailed an alleged love affair between Hun Sen and Piseth Pilika, and accused Bun Rany, the prime minister’s wife, of paying a hit team to gun her down near O’Russei Market last July 6. Thousands took to the streets to mourn the death of the slain actress and renowned traditional Khmer dancer. Government officials have persistently denied the prime minister or his wife were involved.
Hun Sen, the magazine said in the Jan 31 statement, “purposely let pass the stipulated deadline of three months in which he had the liberty to begin a procedure.” Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, named by government officials as a likely co-defendant in the threatened suit, said last week that the missed deadline was a “change in position.” He suggested it showed the allegations are true.
But Francois Zineray, a Paris-based attorney who represented the Prime Minister in the past and has spoken to him about the case, said the three-month deadline only applies to defamation suits. Under French law, such a suit would be “inappropriate,” he said.
“There is no conclusion that could be deduced from the delay,” he said Monday by phone from Paris. “The deadline has passed for one kind of legal action: defamation. But I don’t think defamation would be proper in this case for technical legal reasons. When you are a prime minister, a civil servant, you may not use that line of defense.”
Zineray said Hun Sen could still sue under a statute of French law for bringing “offense to a head of state”—a legal charge Hun Sen has used to successfully recover damages from French publications in the past. The deadline to bring that kind of case is “at least a year,” Zineray said. Officials from L’Express Magazine did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Zineray said he represented Hun Sen in a successful suit using the same statute against the French newspaper Le Figaro. That newspaper published an article called “Cambodia: Kingdom of Corruption.” It accused Hun Sen of receiving free helicopters for drug smuggling, Zineray said.
In January 1998, a French appeals court upheld a decision that Le Figaro had published material that insulted Hun Sen without substantiating its accusations, and ordered the publication to pay $11,600 in damages.
On Monday, Zineray declined to speculate on whether the Prime Minister and his wife still plan to file suit against L’Express in connection with the Piseth Pilika articles.
Numerous Hun Sen advisers declined comment. Several referred questions to Hun Sen adviser Om Yentieng.
But when asked Monday if Hun Sen still planned to sue, Om Yentieng, one of the men closest to the Prime Minister, would say only “this is the internal affair of the family. I don’t want to interfere in the internal affair of the family.”
“I am not a lawyer of theirs. I do not know about a thing,” he maintained.
Police officials in Phnom Penh also declined to comment on progress in the investigation into the brutal daytime slaying of the 34-year-old actress. Though more than six months have passed, they have failed to produce a suspect, or comment publicly on the case in months.
When asked for an update on the case Monday, Teng Savong, the man heading the investigation, responded: “No. I don’t talk to journalists.”
The October L’Express articles created a media feeding frenzy in Phnom Penh, led to worldwide headlines, and sparked a virtually unprecedented run on Khmer-language newspapers as the public here clamored to read the scandalous news. Government officials dismissed the accusations as defamation and announced plans to pursue legal action to protect the reputation of the Prime Minister and his wife.
“The publication of L’Express dated Oct 7 about the death of Piseth Pilika has politically and intentionally charged Chumtev Bun Rany Hun Sen who is innocent and practices Buddhism,” Om Yentieng wrote in the government rebuttal in mid-October. “As a victim of this twist, Chumtev Bun Rany has decided today to ask the law to find justice both in Paris and Phnom Penh.”
L’Express fired back with a statement of its own attacking the government response as “the lies of ancient Khmer Rouge dignitaries.”
Several observers said a decision by the Prime Minister and his family not to sue would likely be perceived as tantamount to admitting that the accusations are true. And some pro-democracy advocates expressed concerns that the lack of progress in the case will increase public disillusionment with the government
“What I fear is that the public might perceive that our Prime Minister has agreed with what the newspaper has said,” Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said. “There is a French proverb ‘he who stays quiet, consents.’ It is a bad thing to have uncertainty and some might raise the issue again. It could cause some trouble and a lack of confidence in our leadership.”
Opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay said: “I personally don’t know much about the whole thing. But I would be very worried if persons do not take legal action against the magazine. From a Cambodian perspective, we say that if someone does not take someone to court, it could mean you accept the magazine.
“It could lead to a lack of respect from public and it could cause the Prime Minister to lose respect in the public eye. I find it very uncomfortable to talk about. I wish that Bun Rany and Hun Sen would take court action against the magazine.”
Human rights workers, meanwhile, condemned the lack of progress in the investigation.
“It’s another case of impunity,” said a Western human rights officer who asked not to be identified. “And it doesn’t bode well for the future of any country. Everyone speaks of peace and reconciliation, but without justice in any country can you have peace and reconciliation?
“If the allegations are true, it certainly goes to the very top. A government system structured on an oligarchy, a ruling elite that basically dictates policy and becomes untouchable—when those in power are untouchable, it does not bode well for future stability. If you have such a disparity, sooner or later people will become very, very angry.”
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara, Tom Welsh)