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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - SRP ponders next step in PM suit

SRP ponders next step in PM suit

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Mu Sochua (foreground) and Sam Rainsy before Mu Sochua’s Municipal Court trial on Friday.

With the verdict in SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua's defamation case expected next week, the party appears divided over whether to engage the government in another round of legal tangles.

AS PHNOM Penh Municipal Court prepares to deliver the verdict in Prime Minister Hun Sen's defamation case against Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) lawmaker Mu Sochua, the opposition faces the dilemma of whether to keep up the fight in the event of a guilty verdict or concede defeat by paying any fines levied by the court.

While some SRP officials seem to regard the verdict, expected August 4, as a natural endpoint to Mu Sochua's legal tangle with Hun Sen, some observers say the party should maintain its opposition regardless of the outcome.

Human Rights Party (HRP) President Kem Sokha said Monday that opposition parties should continue to take strong stands even as they are pressured more and more during government crackdowns.

"We should not let ourselves get soft-hearted," he said.

"What we must do is stand on principle against corruption and human rights violations. For the rights violations against Mu Sochua, we should not cease. We must go on."

SRP spokesman Yim Sovann told the Post last Thursday that the party would settle the case by paying any fines levied against Mu Sochua, adding that, as the saying goes, prudence might be the better part of valour.

Mu Sochua had previously said she would rather go to jail than pay a fine, saying her incarceration would draw attention to oppression directed at many Cambodians.

"Mu Sochua's stance is different from the party," Yim Sovann said. "The SRP sees that the court is not independent or fair. Even if we continue our case to the top, it will lose."

In a recent interview in the online Asia Media Forum, SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said the party had no alternative but to "quiet down for a while" as the government crackdown continues.

Mu Sochua said Tuesday her stance on the issue remained the same, though she declined to elaborate.

"My stance has not changed," she said, adding, "The pursuit of justice is based on principles. Those principles cannot be negotiated."

She declined to comment on the payment of fines in advance of the verdict.

Political theatre
The SRP's candlelight vigil outside the Municipal Court before Mu Sochua's hearing Friday, an event attended by press and international observers, could be seen as an example of how Hun Sen's lawsuit might ultimately benefit the opposition. But it is unclear exactly how far the issue can be pushed before it will become a political - or personal - liability.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the party's stance should reflect what it is hoping to gain from the affair.

"If your intention is to fight the system and push for change as an advocate, you have to continue, you have to stick to a principle and not waver," he said.

"Unfortunately, there are some hardships associated with being courageous.... It will incur some painful sacrifices."

The SRP's apparent decision to wind down its fight echoes its reaction to a similar crackdown in 2005, when Sam Rainsy and lawmakers Cheam Channy and Chea Poch all faced lawsuits filed by government officials.

Cheam Channy, who was sentenced to seven years in jail on charges of attempting to form a private army, said Monday that the experience of his own case made him realise that fighting court battles was not worth the effort.

"I understand clearly that the Cambodian courts are under political pressure," he said.

He added that the current priority of the party was to help those in need rather than waging an unwinnable fight against senior officials.

Cheam Channy was released from prison in 2006 after securing a pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni.

Though many of Mu Sochua's supporters have argued that the court would likely deliver a guilty verdict because of political pressure, Hun Sen's lawyer Ky Tech dismissed the opposition's concerns about judicial independence, saying the court was operating in a transparent manner.

"Whether my case loses or wins, it will be just, since the court has conducted the case properly," he said.

Cambodian Defenders Project Executive Director Sok Sam Oeun, who noted that Mu Sochua did not speak very much during Friday's hearing,
said the SRP decision on whether to continue its legal struggle should ultimately depend on the evidence it possesses.

"[Municipal Court] was the place for her to fight the strongest, but she did not speak very much," he said.

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