Photo by: Heng Chivoan, Pha Lina, and Bejan Siavoshy
THE Supreme Court on Wednesday affirmed a controversial defamation conviction against opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, closing the last stage of a highly charged legal battle with Prime Minister Hun Sen that has triggered renewed criticism of the Cambodian judiciary.
The ruling, read out to a packed-to-overflowing courtroom by Judge Khim Pon, also upheld a fine of 16.5 million riels (US$3,975) levied against Mu Sochua by the Municipal Court last August, though the former minister of women’s affairs said afterwards that she would rather go to jail than pay it.
“My stance remains the same,” she told reporters and supporters outside the courthouse gates after the hearing, which ran just under 90 minutes. “I will not pay the fine. I am ready, and I am willing to go to jail, even today.”
During the hearing, Mu Sochua said both the Municipal Court and the Appeal Court – which upheld the initial verdict in October – had erred in their rulings by failing to consider all the available evidence. But Khim Pon dismissed her claims as meritless.
“We understand why the accused said in this hearing that the courts did not consider all the points of her defamation case, but that is not correct because in its decision the courts have raised enough evidence,” he said.
After fielding a handful of questions outside the court, Mu Sochua led a group of about 50 supporters north along Sothearos Boulevard towards the Royal Palace, though they were quickly intercepted by municipal police wielding riot shields and batons.
The officers stopped the group for about five minutes, then allowed the march to resume, walking 5 metres in front as Mu Sochua – leading the group in what she later described as “a patriotic song to defend the spirit and the soul of the nation and of the people”— executed a meandering trail that ended at SRP headquarters.
Khim Pon did not specify a date by which Mu Sochua would need to pay the fine.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said he wasn’t sure what the deadline might be, but estimated that she would have “at least around two months”.
He added that Mu Sochua could face up to two years in prison if she stood by her refusal to pay.
“The court can put her in jail for two years if she resists,” he said.
The defamation row pitting Mu Sochua against Hun Sen began on April 4 of last year, when the premier delivered a speech in Kampot province during which he referred to an unidentified female lawmaker from that province as cheung klang, a term meaning “strong legs” that is viewed by some as derogatory when used to describe women.
On April 23, Mu Sochua and her lawyer at the time, Kong Sam Onn, held a press conference announcing plans to sue Hun Sen for defamation.
Hun Sen then filed a countersuit, saying statements made at the press conference – during which Mu Sochua and Kong Sam Onn said Hun Sen’s comments were clearly referencing the lawmaker – were defamatory.
While Hun Sen’s complaint was allowed to proceed, Mu Sochua’s was thrown out by the Appeal Court on October 14 of last year.
Government lawyer Ky Tech, who has represented Hun Sen throughout the case, on Wednesday praised the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“I think that the decision is very just, because if we think of the process of this case – from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to the Appeal Court and to the Supreme Court – the decision is the same,” he said.
Tith Sothea, a member of the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers, offered a similar assessment, and dismissed Mu Sochua’s conduct afterwards as mere theatrics.
“This is a correct decision by the court,” he said. “And her announcement that she will not pay the fine and would rather be imprisoned, this is just to show that she is a strong woman.”
Mu Sochua and her supporters, however, dismissed the proceedings as politically motivated, echoing statements they have made for more than a year.
“I would like to indicate that Samdech Hun Sen’s case that won this time is a completely political issue,” Mu Sochua said. “My case that sued Samdech Hun Sen in the first court did not have a hearing. Where is justice before the law? Where is equality before the law?”
SRP spokesman and lawmaker Yim Sovann said the outcome reflected poorly on the Cambodian judiciary.
“The matter of Mu Suchua is not just about Mu Sochua herself. It is about the justice of Cambodia. It shows the international community that the court in Cambodia is not independent, it’s not neutral,” he said. “The court now in Cambodia is a constraint to the economic development, it’s a constraint to the investor attraction ... and it’s a constraint to the poverty reduction and also to the efforts to curb corruption. So we need to reform this court.”
Many domestic and international observers have also criticised the manner in which the duelling defamation cases were handled.
Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said after Wednesday’s hearing that the outcome reflected a “double standard in Cambodia”.
“The strong and powerful win,” he said, “and the weak lose.”