Human rights groups said Monday they were concerned over the lightning-fast prosecution of a 22-year-old man from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake area who was, within three days, arrested, charged and convicted of defamation in court and fined $1,250 for spray-painting slogans critical of the government on the side of his house.
Saturday’s hasty conviction of Soung Sophorn, a law student and leader of the opposition party’s youth wing in Daun Penh district, followed after he spray painted in Khmer the words “Against dictatorial policy” and “People suffer because the government bows down to the company” on the wooden walls of his family’s lakeside shack on June 1. He also spray painted “Stop Evictions” in English.
“I am a victim. I am so angry, which is why I wrote those two sentences,” Mr Sophorn said, alleging that the private firm, Shukaku Inc, that is filling Boeng Kak lake in with sand, had promised residents $8,000 to move from the area but then had only paid $4,000. Mr Sophorn said that he accepted $6,000 from the firm on Saturday, after his trial.
According to Mr Sophorn, he went to the Shukaku site office at the lake on Thursday to negotiate compensation with the firm, but was then escorted to Municipal Police Headquarters in Russei Keo district, where he was officially arrested for insulting the government under the country’s defamation law.
Municipal police chief Touch Naruth confirmed that police arrested Mr Sophorn on Thursday and sent him to court on Saturday. He said he was charged with insulting the government under article 63 in the defamation and libel law.
“We are the ones who arrested him. He can insult any individual or company but not the government. He insulted the government; it is a criminal case under article 63,” the police chief said.
When asked how an individual can defame an institution such as a government, Mr Naruth answered that “Soung Sophorn is living on Cambodian territory, so who else could he mean with this insult?”
Shukaku, which is owned by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin, was given a 99-year lease by the municipality to fill the lake with sand and then build private residential and retail units, a massive undertaking that requires the relocation of more than 4,000 families.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Prosecutor Heang Sopheak, said that Mr Sophorn was released Saturday after he had agreed to pay the 5 million riel fine and promised never to repeat his crime. He then referred all other questions to Judge Sem Sakola, who declined to comment on the case.
Mr Sophorn’s lawyer, Kong Sam Onn, who is also representing SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua in her defamation suit against Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the court originally charged his client with incitement as well as defamation, which is why they detained the young man ahead of trial.
The conviction was so quick because Mr Sophorn confessed to the crime, but also because, according to the police, he was arrested in the act of committing the crime and there was therefore no need for an investigating judge to look into the case, Mr Sam Onn added.
“They have special procedure for a crimes in the act; they have a speedy process and charged him…directly,” he said.
“It is not really a crime of defamation; it is more a kind of expression, because [Mr Sophorn] was angry with the company and the government,” he said adding that Mr Sophorn should have been protected under the Constitutionally enshrined right to freedom of expression.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, which provides free legal aid services, said that he was surprised to hear that slogans painted on a house were ruled to be defamatory and that police had detained the law student pending trial.
“If he wrote an opinion [on his wall], it cannot be defamation, but our court is not very independent,” he said. “Maybe they do this because it is a lesson to other people not to do what he did.”
The ruling could have a negative impact on the people living around the lake because it threatens their right to voice their opinions, said Bunn Rattana, a coordinator for the Housing Rights Task Force.
But, she added, there are a lot of details in the case that are unclear and that the definition of defamation in Cambodian law is also unclear.
“It is surprising to me and others that this case happened very fast. Assume you file a complaint to the court it will take a very long time…. [But] within four days everything was done,” she said.
Though he couldn’t comment on the case of Mr Sophorn directly because he did not have details, Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said that freedom of expression has been threatened in Cambodia for many years, but that people who are denied the right to speak might find other, more radical means, to express themselves.
“If the government tries to close their mouths, anger or pressure in their hearts will reveal in another way through violence,” Thun Saray cautioned.
“If the people cause chaos that harms the country that should be punished but if not, they should not be [punished],” he added.