SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua’s deadline to pay a fine for defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen expired at 5 pm yesterday, leaving prosecutors at Phnom Penh Municipal Court with only one legal option: to jail her in lieu of payment.
Last night, however, a court official said it was too early to say what action the court would take over Ms Sochua’s failure to pay her fine of about $2,125.
Ahead of yesterday’s deadline, Ms Sochua was defiant as she continued to refuse to pay the fine.
“Today I declare war,” she told reporters at a press conference at SRP headquarters in Phnom Penh yesterday.
“I declare war, not with weapons, but with my conscience against any forms of violations of human rights…[and] any forms of destruction of the justice system,” she said.
“My stance remains the same. I will not pay any fine. I will face whatever decision the court of Phnom Penh will make.”
After the deadline passed yesterday afternoon, Ms Sochua met with SRP colleagues at the party’s headquarters. Before she left the meeting and drove home, Ms Sochua said she still had not heard of her fate.
“I haven’t heard what they are going to do,” she said. “I am going home.”
Deputy municipal prosecutor Sok Roeun said after the deadline passed that prosecutors would announce the decision when it was ready.
“It’s too early to tell you what measures the court will take,” Mr Roeun said.
By law, the next step for the court is to issue a special detention order to jail Ms Sochua in lieu of the payment. If Ms Sochua continues to refuse to pay the fine after being detained, she would face six months in jail.
Last month, the Supreme Court upheld the Phnom Penh court’s August verdict that Ms Sochua was guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen last April. Ms Sochua, the municipal court found, defamed the prime minister by announcing her intention to sue him for defamation after Mr Hun Sen made remarks that Ms Sochua considered insulting and directed at her personally.
Human rights organizations yesterday criticized Ms Sochua’s possible arrest, saying that her detention would have a detrimental impact on Cambodia.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said he hoped that a political solution could be reached.
“Her arrest would be a bad thing for Cambodia because she may become the second Aung San Suu Kyi, and Cambodia may become the second Burma,” Mr Sam Oeun said.
“This is why I beg the court to…cut her salary to pay the fine to the court and urge the prime minister not to take the money for the compensation. That way both of them would save face.
“For me, I do not support the law forcing people into jail for not paying fines, and it would be better for the Parliament to abolish this law.”
Rupert Abbott, development director for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said yesterday that Ms Sochua’s case underscored problems in the judicial system.
“I think her case and her [possible] detention reflect the fact that the democratic space is shrinking in Cambodia,” Mr Abbott said, adding that he hoped that Cambodians would take notice of Ms Sochua’s fight.
“My biggest fear is…that nothing comes out of all this,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said he believed Ms Sochua was actively pushing to go to jail.
“Only the judge can make the decision on that,” Mr Siphan said.
“She has volunteered to go to jail—that is her will—but she must remember that the jail is not a hotel. The court’s decision is the court’s decision.”
In a bid to attract King Norodom Sihamoni’s intervention in the case, SRP lawmakers yesterday sent a letter asking the King to use his power as head of the Supreme Council of Magistracy to investigate the judiciary.
“We would like Your Majesty to take action against any judges who do not carry out their duty properly according to the law, especially judges who participated in making unjust decisions against Ms Mu Sochua and His Excellency Sam Rainsy,” the letter said.
This is “in order to ensure [there is] independence, neutrality and justice in the judicial system of the Kingdom of Cambodia, as stipulated in Article 132 of the Constitution.”
Mr Siphan said he did not believe the King would get involved in the case, nor consider granting a pardon to Ms Sochua if she were jailed.
“The King has nothing to do with the judgment,” he said.