OUTSPOKEN opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua has reiterated her stance that she will refuse to pay any fines associated with a long-running defamation case involving Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the Supreme Court prepared to make a final ruling on the case today.
In August, Phnom Penh Municipal Court found the Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian guilty of defaming Hun Sen and ordered her to pay 16.5 million riels (around US$3,975) in fines and compensation, a verdict that was upheld on appeal in October.
Mu Sochua said she is hoping for a fair hearing, but that she would prefer to face jail rather than pay the fine.
“That’s been my position from the beginning,” she said. “I have not committed any crime. My conscience is clear.”
The SRP lawmaker was sued by Hun Sen after she filed her own defamation suit, accusing him of insulting her during a speech in Kampot province in April 2009. Her own accusations were thrown out by the Appeal Court in October.
On Tuesday, she said the outcome of the case was about more than the prime minister’s insult.
“The Cambodian people are living in fear, and it is time to stand up,” she said. “This is not about my case – it’s about the national interest.”
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party will stand behind Mu Sochua if she refuses to pay the court-ordered fines. “We are leaving that up to Mu Sochua. We don’t mind what her decision is,” he said.
Ky Tech, the government lawyer who represents Hun Sen, said that if Mu Sochua fails to carry out any court order she could be criminally liable. “If I win a case in the Supreme Court, I would request the court to enforce its decision,” he said.
In a legal analysis of the case made public Tuesday, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR) stated that the lower courts had failed to uphold Mu Sochua’s right to a fair trial and ignored her right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the Constitution.
According to Article 63 of the UNTAC Penal Code, defamation is defined as “any bad faith allegation or imputation of a given fact which harms the honor or reputation of an individual”. CCHR, however, claims government lawyers failed to convincingly prove that Mu Sochua had harmed Hun Sen’s reputation or did so in “bad faith” – both key elements of the law.
“In this case it is difficult to look at the facts of the case and evidence presented and conclude that major doubts did not exist as to whether the elements of the offence had been proven,” the analysis stated.
Other observers said the Supreme Court’s ruling would be a litmus test for the Cambodian judiciary.
“It will be a crushing defeat for freedom of speech if the result goes against Mu Sochua,” said Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.
He added that the protracted legal battle also reflected poorly on the country.
“It’s cost a lot of time and is not setting a good example for Cambodia,” he said.
Calls for international action
An NGO briefing paper released by 15 NGOs on Tuesday struck a similar tone, saying that foreign governments should address the issue of freedom of expression – including legal attacks on opposition lawmakers – when they meet in the capital today for a government-donor forum.
“For over a decade the international community has provided aid to Cambodia but most have remained largely quiet as human rights have been violated and democratic space eroded,” it stated.
“We call on the international donor community to take responsibility and speak out against the deterioration of rights and democracy in Cambodia. Doing nothing may be judged as tantamount to complicity.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that in cases involving high-ranking or powerful figures, the Supreme Court was often swayed by political considerations.