Without naming names, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday raised the issue of his pending defamation lawsuits with SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua and announced that he has filed a similar suit against her lawyer.
Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, the prime minister said that he was suing “a lady and her lawyer” for $2,500 each for defamatory remarks made during a recent news conference. The premier also referred to the “lady” in question as “stupid” and called on the National Assembly to lift her parliamentary immunity.
On Monday morning both the premier and Ms Mu Sochua filed defamation lawsuits against each other with the Phnom Penh Muni-cipal Court. In contrast to Mr Hun Sen, who is suing the lawmaker for $2,500, Ms Mu Sochua is suing the prime minister for a token 500 riel in damages.
All three defamation complaints stem from a speech given by the prime minister in Kampot province at the beginning of the month. In that April 4 address Mr Hun Sen attacked the opposition and followed up his remarks by calling an unnamed prominent woman in the province a “cheung klang,” which literally means “strong legs,” but can mean a prostitute when applied to a woman. He then went on to say that an unnamed woman had hugged someone during the 2008 election campaign but then complained about her shirt being for-cibly unbuttoned.
Though the premier never mentioned anyone by name, Ms Mu Sochua, a lawmaker for Kampot, believes that the comments were directed at her and related to an incident during last year’s election campaign when an army officer accosted her and her shirt was torn open.
The prime minister also raised the issue of parliamentary immunity, a constitutionally guaranteed protection granted to lawmakers that requires a two-thirds majority vote of the Assembly to suspend, and which the premier’s party could easily muster.
To strip her immunity, “it is as easy as ABC,” the prime minister said, but added that it was highly unlikely that his own immunity would also be taken away.
“I respect the court, and I prepare myself if the court requests an investigation. I do not believe that CPP lawmakers will suspend my immunity,” he said, adding that neither the lawsuit he filed nor his comments in his April 4 speech was an affront to women. “I’m one person who many women have voted for,” he continued, adding that when he wins his defamation lawsuit, he will donate the money from the case to orphans.
Ms Mu Sochua said by telephone Wednesday that the premier’s latest comments had put undue pressure on the court.
“I shall walk to prison, if that is what justice is about in Cambodia,” she said, reiterating that if found guilty of defamation, she will refuse to pay compensation to the prime minister.
Her lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, said by telephone that he was aware of Hun Sen’s lawsuit against him.
“It is his right to file the lawsuit,” he said, but denied wrongdoing.
The premier’s attorney, former Cambodian Bar Association president Ky Tech, declined to comment on the case.
Municipal court prosecutor Yet Chakriya also declined to answer questions about the competing lawsuits Wednesday.
Several local NGOs issued a joint statement Wednesday condemning the possible lifting of Ms Mu Sochua’s parliamentary immunity and called on the municipal court to handle both complaints in “an independent and impartial manner.”
“They should refrain from lifting any MP’s immunity unless there is compelling evidence of a crime having occurred,” said the statement, which was endorsed by nine groups, including Licadho, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and the Community Legal Education Center.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said in the statement that if “Mu Sochua’s immunity is lifted, it will only prove the very point that she is trying to make—that opposition MPs are not free to do their jobs without fear of intimidation and persecution.”