Mu Sochua Defamation Verdict Upheld By Supreme Court

The Supreme Court yesterday took less than an hour to deliberate and then uphold a conviction handed down to SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua last August in a defamation lawsuit filed against her by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Despite the verdict, Ms Sochua reiterated outside the courtroom that she would not pay the court-ordered fine of $4,100, saying that she would rather be arrested and sent to jail.

Moments later, Ms Sochua and a group of her supporters pushed and shoved with up to 50 police officers carrying riot shields and batons, many of whom had formed a line across Sothearos Boulevard to prevent the group from walking north towards the Royal Palace.

The Supreme Court hearing was Ms Sochua’s final appeal against the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s verdict that she was guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen last April. Ms Sochua, the municipal court concluded, had defamed the prime minister by announcing her intention to sue the premier for defamation after Mr Hun Sen made insulting remarks in a public speech, which Ms Sochua said were directed at her personally.

The courtroom was packed yesterday with SRP members, foreign diplomats, NGO representatives while outside dozens more spectators and supporters of Ms Sochua were locked out of the proceedings because the court could not fit them inside.

Representing herself, Ms Sochua read steadily from prepared notes and asked the court’s judges to refer the case to the Constitutional Council for further deliberation.

Mr Hun Sen’s lawyer Ky Tech, however, said the court should uphold the verdict from the lower courts. He also took issue with Ms Sochua’s notes to the court, saying he did not believe that she had written them herself.

“I do not believe that the statement that Mu Sochua read…[was] made by herself,” Mr Tech said, to the loud disapproval of SRP supporters in the room.

While the judges retired to consider their ruling, Ms Sochua spent time walking through the courtroom, talking freely to her supporters and friends.

After Supreme Court Chief Judge Khim Pon read out the decision that the court would uphold the previous decisions made by the Court of Appeal in October and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in August, Ms Sochua turned to the crowded courtroom and shook her head once before exiting quickly.

Outside on the street, a group of women lit white candles-the SRP’s official symbol-and stood behind Ms Sochua as she spoke to reporters and a large crowd of onlookers.

“I have been found guilty of a crime that I have not committed,” she told the crowd. “This is not justice-this is justice for sale…. This is justice for the powerful people only,” she said.

Asked whether she would pay the fine issued by the court, Ms Sochua said she would rather go to jail.

“My stance remains the same-I will not pay the fine,” she said.

“My conscience tells me I can not pay the fine. I am willing and I am ready to go to jail, even today. My appeal is to my compatriots: please stop living in fear. I am calling on all Cambodians to join this long journey for justice.”

Carrying white candles, Ms Sochua and a group of about 30 followers then attempted to walk toward the Royal Palace on Sothearos Boulevard. Police were quick to respond, forming a small line on the street. The group pushed past the first line of police officers, just as two trucks carrying anti-riot police moved in to block the street. With their riot shields raised up, the police prevented anyone from pushing past, despite Ms Sochua’s numerous attempts to find a weak spot in the police line.

No one was hurt or arrested during the confrontation, even after one of Ms Sochua’s supporters was observed shoving a police officer in the back. Eventually the police allowed Ms Sochua and her group to walk to Preah Ang Dang Keu shrine, on the riverside opposite the Royal Palace. The group then walked back to SRP headquarters, with Ms Sochua stopping to speak to onlookers and shopkeepers standing on the side of the road.

Ms Sochua said yesterday that she was unsure of how long she will have to pay the fine imposed on her by the court.

Saly Thara, one of the Supreme Court judges presiding over yesterday’s trial, said afterward that the municipal court would make the final decision about how long Ms Sochua has to pay the fine.

“It could be quick or slow, depending on the [municipal] court’s procedure,” Mr Thara said.

Mr Tech said he believed the SRP lawmaker had about 15 days to pay the fine, adding that he would formally request that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court take action if the fine was not paid within the proper timeframe.

SRP spokesman Yim Sovann queried yesterday whether Ms Sochua would face a prison sentence if she did not pay the fine.

“I don’t think she will be in jail, because…there is no law that says that if Mu Sochua does not pay then she will be put in jail,” Mr Sovann said.

“I talked to a lawyer this morning-[I believe] they will confiscate her property” [instead], Mr Sovann said.

Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the free legal aid Cambodian Defenders Project, said the case should never have become such a big deal.

“I think [the case] is a small thing, because politicians must be able to criticize one another in a democracy,” he said.

“It would be better for the top leader to show tolerance to lower politicians and opponents. I do not want to see politicians going to court for the small things.”

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