The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday found SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and ordered her to pay 16.5 million riel, or about $4,100, in fines and compensation.
A limited audience was allowed into the courtroom Tuesday morning to hear the verdict, with entry barred to journalists, NGO observers and SRP supporters.
Leaving the courthouse, Ms Sochua told reporters that presiding Judge Sem Sakola had found her guilty and ruled that she must pay 8.5 million riel in fines and another 8 million riel in compensation to the prime minister. Mr Hun Sen had been seeking 10 million riel in compensation from Ms Sochua.
“The court verdict today, the judge didn’t use her conscience and the law to announce my verdict,” Ms Sochua said. “The court decision is a decision that I see as a political decision and the decision has made me, a victim, become an offender.” “I didn’t receive any justice before the law because the judicial system in Cambodia is not independent due to political interference,” the opposition lawmaker added. “It was not a trial, it was a political order. I don’t accept the court ruling and I demand justice.”
Asked if she would pay the fine, Ms Sochua said that she is considering pursuing the legal battle in higher courts. “I have one month to think about it…. [I]t’s not justice, I will make it clear and I will continue the fight until justice is provided to me,” she said. “I have the stance that as long as I don’t receive my justice I will continue to fight for justice, not for Mu Sochua but for the country. Many people are the victims of the judicial system.”
The legal fracas between Ms Sochua and the prime minister originally stems from a nationally broadcast speech given by the premier in Kampot province on April 4. In that speech, Mr Hun Sen attacked an unnamed woman in Kampot, calling her a “cheung klang,” a derogatory phrase literally meaning “strong leg.” Ms Sochua, who is a lawmaker for Kampot, felt that the content of the speech made it obvious that she was the target of the prime minister’s remarks, and in an April 23 news conference announced her intention to sue Mr Hun Sen for defamation. The prime minister responded with a countersuit of his own, essentially claiming that by saying he had defamed Ms Sochua, the SRP lawmaker had in fact defamed him. On June 10, the Phnom Penh court dismissed Ms Sochua’s complaint but proceeded with the lawsuit filed by the premier. At her July 24 trial, Ms Sochua declined to answer questions because she did not have a lawyer. She claimed that no lawyer was willing to represent her since her former attorney, Kong Sam Onn, dropped her as a client after facing potential disbarment and also being sued for defamation by Mr Hun Sen.
SRP President Sam Rainsy, who came to the court Tuesday to listen to the verdict, said beforehand that even if the court ruled against Ms Sochua it was impossible for the SRP to be the loser in the case.
“Maybe it’s a judicial defeat but it is a moral and political victory for us,” Mr Rainsy said.
Minister of Information and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Tuesday that it was appropriate for the government to pursue a lawsuit against Ms Sochua, and denied that the government put any pressure on the court over the case.
“She started it first,” the minister said, claiming that Ms Sochua also urged NGOs to write letters to threaten the prime minister.
Mr Kanharith added that those who criticize the court’s verdict haven’t been following the process the lawsuit went through. “They don’t know about the event history. They should be ashamed; the prime minister must protect his reputation, otherwise people would think that he insulted a woman,” he said.
Mr Hun Sen’s attorney, Ky Tech, welcomed the court’s verdict and sentence, saying that it was a fair decision.
“The verdict is justice. The court complied with the law. The court has given justice to my client, who is a victim,” Mr Tech said.
Judge Sakola and Phnom Penh Municipal Court Director Chiv Kheng couldn’t be reached for comment.
Local NGOs did not appear to share Mr Tech’s enthusiasm over the decision, saying that it would hamper freedom of expression in Cambodia. “This verdict is a significant blow to freedom of expression and will have serious ramifications on the ability of National Assembly members to publicly speak their minds,” Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said in a statement. “It is yet another example of the perilous state of democratic freedoms in Cambodia.”
“This morning’s verdict was predictably unjust, and shows yet again how the court are controlled by the government and used as a weapon against its political opponents,” she continued.
Committee for Free and Fair Elections Director Koul Panha said that there was “nothing to be surprised about” concerning Ms Sochua’s conviction and that it serves as evidence that the judicial system is in need of reform.
“The verdict will intimidate those people who express political opinions,” he added. “People will see that even lawmakers can’t express their views, so what about simple people?”