S-21 Survivor Sues Kem Sokha for Defamation

A bad week got worse for embattled opposition leader Kem Sokha on Friday, when Chum Mey, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge-era S-21 prison, filed a lawsuit over comments Mr. Sokha allegedly made about the torture center having been fabricated by the Vietnamese.

The lawsuit, which was filed on Friday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court by Mr. Mey, 83, and on behalf of three other survivors of S-21, seeks $1,000 in damages from Mr. Sokha, who is the acting president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). 

The money is to be used to pay for a Buddhist ceremony to bless the spirits of those who died at the Khmer Rouge security center, Mr. Mey said.

“We have suffered pain because we are the victims who were detained and tortured at Tuol Sleng [S-21 prison] during the Khmer Rouge,” Mr. Mey said.

“If Mr. Sokha had initially agreed with my plan to just light only three incense sticks to apologize in front of the souls of the victims at Tuol Sleng, then the defamation lawsuit wouldn’t have been brought against him,” Mr. Mey said.

The furor centers around two separate audio recordings that began circulating on May 18, in which Mr. Sokha appears to accuse Vietnam of setting up the former school building to look like a Khmer Rouge prison and torture center. In one recording, Mr. Sokha says: “The Vietnamese created this place with pictures [of the victims]. If this place is truly Khmer Rouge, they would have knocked it down before they left.”

In another he says: “Why would the Khmer Rouge be so stupid as to keep Tuol Sleng after killing many people, and keep it as a museum to show tourists? This is just staged. I believe it is staged, isn’t it?”

Since the release of the recording by the government, Mr. Mey has taken it upon himself to hold Mr. Sokha accountable for the comments and was at the helm of a 10,000-strong protest in Phnom Penh last Sunday, which the opposition says was supported by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.

A copy of Mr. Mey’s lawsuit, which bears the court prosecutor’s stamp, shows that S-21 child survivor Norng Chan Phal, his brother Norng Chan Than and Chin Meth are co-plaintiffs.

Kouy Thunna, Mr. Mey’s lawyer, said that if Mr. Sokha is found guilty of public defamation, he could be fined up to $2,500 in accordance with Article 305 of the Penal Code.

“In our complaint, we accuse him of public defamation but we don’t know whether or not he will face more offenses until the court investigates the issue,” Mr. Thunna said.

On Wednesday, it emerged that a woman who claims to be his long estranged mistress is also suing Mr. Sokha for $10,000. Keo Sophannary, 41, said she is seeking compensation from Mr. Sokha, with whom she says she has two adopted children. Apart from the cash payments, Ms. Sophannary has also filed a criminal complaint against the opposition leader after claiming that Mr. Sokha’s bodyguards assaulted her mother on Thursday and required hospitalization.

Mr. Sokha’s legal woes don’t end there: On Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened to sue Mr. Sokha for accusing the CPP of orchestrating a campaign of dirty tricks to disrupt the opposition leaders’ visits to supporters in rural areas. Mr. Hun Sen also accused Mr. Sokha of having paid for sex with a 15-year-old girl—though the prime minister provided no evidence of his stunning allegation.

In a statement on Friday, CNRP president Sam Rainsy decried the sustained nature of Mr. Hun Sen’s attacks on Mr. Sokha, saying that they indicated a “weakness of the framework of democracy in Cambodia.”

“In democratic countries that have an independent judiciary, the possibility of being sued for libel provides a natural restraint on the temptation to sling mud at political opponents. The existence of a free press and the right to reply mean that it is only common sense to restrict allegations to what can be proved,” Mr. Rainsy said.

No such limitations exist in Cambodia, and Mr. Hun Sen has been able to make a series of personal allegations against Kem Sokha without supplying any supporting evidence, Mr. Rainsy said.

Mr. Sokha could not be reached for comment, but CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said Mr. Mey was well within his rights to submit the lawsuit, though he denied that Mr. Sokha had made the comment he is accused of making.

(Additional reporting by Lauren Crothers)

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