SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua is petitioning US President Barack Obama to condemn the Cambodian Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a verdict that found her guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The petition calls on Mr Obama to condemn both the Supreme Court’s ruling against Ms Sochua and the government’s lawsuit against self-exiled SRP leader Sam Rainsy for allegedly falsifying public documents and distributing false information.
Ms Sochua launched the online petition, titled “Stop Suppression of Speech in Cambodia,” on Thursday. By yesterday evening, more than 1,000 people had signed up, including Ashley Judd—one of Hollywood’s leading actresses and a personal friend of Ms Sochua.
Yesterday, Ms Sochua said that while she had originally planned to send the petition directly to a contact at the White House when it reached 2,000 signatures, she was now considering sending it today with the first 1,000 names.
Ms Sochua also said she was preparing to send personal letters to every member of the US Congress.
“The United States is a champion of democracy and human rights,” Ms Sochua said.
“They cannot stay silent. This will be a reminder…that Cambodia is not a sideshow for democracy. The United States has a responsibility to check on the performance of the government [in relation to] the human rights goals from the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement.”
On June 2, the Supreme Court upheld the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s August verdict that Ms Sochua was guilty of defaming Mr Hun Sen for announcing that she planned to sue him for defamation in April last year.
“The Cambodian Supreme Court’s ruling…exemplifies politically-motivated targeting of opposition leaders by Prime Minister Hun Sen, lack of judicial accountability and fairness in the proceedings, and a denial of Cambodian citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and holding of their public officials accountable in the event of perceived breach of the law,” the petition states.
The petition also touches on the possibility that the decision against Ms Sochua, along with the two-year jail sentence handed to Mr Rainsy for his part in uprooting demarcation posts at the Cambodia-Vietnam border in Svay Rieng province last year, will prevent the two opposition lawmakers from running in the 2013 national election.
Under Cambodia’s election laws, a person cannot run for the National Assembly if they have committed a misdemeanor crime and have not been “rehabilitated.” Under the Criminal Procedure Code, a convicted person cannot apply to the courts to be considered “rehabilitated” for at least three years after the completion of their sentence—meaning Ms Sochua and Mr Rainsy would be ineligible to contest the 2013 national elections.
“We are deeply concerned by the silencing of long-time, well-respected, and democratically-elected leaders who could be prevented from running in the next parliamentary elections,” the petition states.
“With more than US $60 million in assistance given to Cambodia in 2009, including in the areas of democratic reform and governance, the United States Government has the responsibility to denounce the Court’s decision as a threat to freedoms of speech and expression and the rights to fair judicial process, transparency, and legal representation,” it adds.
“By failing to speak out against these rulings, the United States would undermine its long-cherished values of freedoms of speech and expression and the rights to an independent and impartial judicial process, equality before the law, and legal representation.”
US Embassy spokesman John Johnson said yesterday that he was unaware of the petition.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he was “deeply sorry” that Ms Sochua had chosen to petition the US president.
“We are deeply sorry that a parliamentary member…is looking to interfere in the Cambodian courts’ judgment,” he said yesterday.
“The court’s decision is the court’s decision. Cambodia is a sovereign state…and the US has no authorization to punish or put pressure on Cambodia [over this case]. They are a partner in Cambodia, not a colonial power,” Mr Siphan said.
Actress Judd made a personal appeal to Obama in support of Ms Sochua. “Mu Sochua is a personal friend and inspiring mentor,” Ms Judd wrote in the petition.
“I met her when she was Minister of Women’s Affairs in 2003, and she took me to the first brothel district I ever experienced. It was a staggering, unforgettable, life changing day.
“Please use every available foreign policy tool to secure her freedom. The girls and woman of Cambodia and the world need her,” the actress wrote.
Chheang Vantha, a clerk at the Supreme Court, said yesterday the court’s permanent verdict against Ms Sochua had been handed over to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday.
The municipal court is now responsible for applying the verdict, which requires Ms Sochua to pay about $4,000 in fines and compensation. Ms Sochua has repeatedly said she will not pay the amount, saying she would prefer to go to jail.
Mr Hun Sen’s lawyer Ky Tech said yesterday he was aware the verdict had been sent to the court but declined to comment further.