IN a surprise verdict, Phnom Penh Municipal Court acquitted Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) parliamentarian Ho Vann of defamation on Tuesday, but his co-defendants Neou Vannarin and Kevin Doyle of The Cambodia Daily newspaper were ordered to pay four million riels (US$1,000) each on related charges.
The charges stemmed from an April 2009 article published in the Daily in which Ho Vann was quoted as saying that academic degrees awarded to 22 officers of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces by a Vietnamese military institute were “worthless”.
In a subsequent clarification statement, Ho Vann claimed that the article, written by Neou Vannarin, had misquoted him. At a Municipal Court hearing on September 9, however, Daily Editor in Chief Kevin Doyle maintained that Ho Vann had been quoted accurately.
Ho Vann and Neou Vannarin were not present for the verdict and were tried in absentia, though Doyle appeared, flipping through a copy of his newspaper as he waited for the proceedings to begin.
“After listening to the case, [the court] understood that Ho Vann said nothing wrong in the interview, but that Kevin Doyle and Neou Vannarin issued a defamatory story in their newspaper,” Municipal Court Judge Sin Visal said. Ho Vann’s clarification letter, the judge added, demonstrated that the SRP parliamentarian had been misquoted.
“The verdict is correct because Ho Vann did not say what was published in the newspaper,” said SRP parliamentarian Chea Poch, who attended the hearing. “Khmer people need to stop suing one another and concentrate on working together to develop the country.”
Observers from the civil society community expressed surprise at Ho Vann’s acquittal, which was greeted with smiles and handshakes by a number of spectators in the courtroom.
Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) president Ou Virak cast the verdict against the spate of government lawsuits against opposition critics in the last few months, calling it “a little light in this darkness”. He speculated that the decision may have been influenced by next week’s meeting of the Cambodian Development Cooperation Forum, a gathering of Cambodian government officials and international donors.
The verdict against Kevin Doyle and Neou Vannarin was less encouraging, however. Pa Nguon Teang, the president of Voice of Democracy Radio, condemned the decision, saying that the judiciary’s acquiesence to political pressure “is an obstacle to freedom of the press in Cambodia”.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that Ho Vann’s parliamentary immunity, which had been revoked pending a verdict in his case, could be restored with a two-thirds vote in the National Assembly. Local rights group Licadho said, however, that Ho Vann’s immunity should be automatically restored based on Cambodian law.