OPPOSITION lawmaker Mu Sochua was convicted Tuesday of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen, prompting her to brand the decision as a "political game" that has cast Cambodia's judicial system "into darkness".
In a hearing on Tuesday, which was closed to the press, presiding judge Sem Sakola ordered the Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian to pay 8.5 million riels (US$2,028) in fines and 8 million riels ($1,909) in compensation to the prime minister.
Speaking to reporters outside the court, Mu Sochua remained defiant, saying the verdict was based on a "politician's order" and would not succeed in silencing her dissent.
"I cannot accept this decision," she said. "It is clear that this decision was based on political interests, not on the law."
The Kampot province lawmaker, who faced the court without legal representation after SRP lawyer Kong Sam Onn resigned his post after facing defamation charges himself and defected to the ruling party in June, said she refused to pay the fines levied by the court and vowed to continue her fight for justice.
She added: "As a national and international principle, all classes of people must be judged by an independent court that is unbiased and not related to any political power."
Despite past suggestions that the SRP would pay the fine on Mu Sochua's behalf, SRP President Sam Rainsy told reporters that the party would "stand behind" her stance on the issue.
The verdict brings to a close a four-month standoff between the two politicians, which began following a speech Hun Sen made in Kampot province on April 4. Mu Sochua alleged that the premier made derogatory references to her, prompting her to file defamation charges against him.
Hun Sen's lawyers countersued, and Mu Sochua's case was dismissed June 10 by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Hun Sen's lawyer Ky Tech did not comment in detail on the verdict but said that if Mu Sochua did not pay her fines within a month, she would face further action.
"If one party does not pay the fine, my party will ask the court to enforce its decision, and if that party still doesn't pay, that party will be forced by the court," he said.
Tuesday's conviction provoked a fresh wave of concerns from rights groups that the government is using the judiciary to suppress outspoken critics.
"This morning's verdict was predictably unjust and shows yet again how the courts are controlled by the government and used as a weapon against its political opponents," Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said in a statement Tuesday.
"This verdict is a significant blow to freedom of expression and will have serious ramifications on the ability of National Assembly members to publicly speak their minds."
Sara Colm, a researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that Tuesday's verdict was a "big step" backwards, but was only the latest chapter in the government's ongoing attempt to silence its opponents.
"The shrinking of the democratic space in Cambodia goes in cycles, and this is one of the more serious reversals that we've seen," she said.
In the context of the spate of other lawsuits that have been filed against government critics and journalists, together with targeted violence over the years, she said, the verdict would send a "chilling message to people who would otherwise speak out".
IN DATES Sochua Saga
- April 4 Hun Sen makes a speech in Kampot province, in which he refers to the province’s female MP as a cheung klang, or “strong leg”, although Mu Sochua was not mentioned by name.
- April 23 Mu Sochua announces her plan to sue Hun Sen for defamation over the comments. Hun Sen’s lawyers say they will countersue.
- May 1 Lawyers for Hun Sen file complaints against SRP lawyer Kong Sam Onn in the Cambodian Bar Association
- June 10 Phnom Penh Municipal Court dismisses Mu Sochua’s lawsuit against the prime minister.
- June 22 Mu Sochua is stripped of her parliamentary immunity by a National Assembly vote.
- July 7 Lawyer Kong Sam Onn resigns from the SRP and apologises to Hun Sen.
- July 24 Mu Sochua appears in court to face the charges.
- August 4 The court finds Mu Sochua guilty of defaming Hun Sen, fining her a total of 16.5 million riels (US$3,937).
Following the verdict, anti-riot police attempted to prevent Mu Sochua, opposition lawmakers and other supporters from marching from the court to the SRP's headquarters on Sothearos Boulevard.
Naly Pilorge said there were at least eight attempts to halt the march, and that officers repeatedly directed cars and motorbikes to drive through the protesters, threatening serious injuries.
The Licadho statement also claimed that two men were arrested during the march, one of whom was kicked in the groin as he was led away by police.
Though the march was unplanned, Naly Pilorge said, the number of police at the court was an indication that the use of force was "deliberate".
Ho Sey Rin, an SRP supporter who joined the march, told the Post he was manhandled by police as they tried to intervene.
"I told the police not to clash with the people's representatives, but they pulled me into their group and choked me until I nearly passed out," he said.
Theary Seng, the former executive director of the Centre for Social Development who also had several run-ins with police, said officers set out to "create chaos" in a bid to break up the march.
"All they know is violence, [so] they wanted to exact violence," she said.
"If the leaders want the people to love and respect them, they should not use violence."
Phnom Penh police Chief Touch Naruth could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but Mok Chito, head of the criminal police department at the Ministry of Interior, said that none of his men were involved in the attempts to block the march.