THE Court of Appeal has upheld the defamation conviction of opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, an outcome the Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarian described as “politically motivated”.
In a hearing on Wednesday, Judge Seng Sivutha affirmed the ruling handed down by the Municipal Court in August, which found Mu Sochua guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and ordered her to pay a total of 16.5 million riels (US$3,963) in fines and compensation.
During the hearing, Mu Sochua was defiant, appearing in court without a defence attorney and refusing to answer any questions because of her lack of counsel, she said.
“I don’t want other lawyers to become victims like Kong Sam Onn,” she said, referring to her former defence lawyer, who resigned and defected to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in July after he was also sued for defamation by the premier.
After the hearing, she rejected the court’s decision and pledged to take her appeal to the Supreme Court.
“I’m not going to pay the fine – I’ve said that before clearly,” she said. “I’m just giving the courts of Cambodia another chance to prove that they can do their job.”
In a statement released after the hearing, the SRP decried the outcome as a “mockery of justice” that merely mimicked the verdict handed down in August. “The Appeal Court, ignoring principles of fair trial, blindly affirmed the decision of the Municipal Court: The accused was denied her rights to be represented by a lawyer of her choice, and to be judged by an independent and impartial tribunal,” the party stated.
The prime minister sued Mu Sochua for defamation in April after she filed her own complaint, claiming he referred to her in a speech as a cheung klang – a Khmer term meaning “strong leg” but considered derogatory when used in relation to women. Her own lawsuit against Hun Sen was dismissed by the Appeal Court on October 14.
Hun Sen’s lawyer, Ky Tech, said during the hearing that Mu Sochua’s comments about her own lawyer were an attempt to politicise the issue, and that the wording of Mu Sochua’s lawsuit – in which she requested 500 riels in symbolic compensation – was clear evidence that she aimed to attack and insult the prime minister.
“She held a press conference to defame Samdech Hun Sen and said she would sue [him]. She demanded 500 riels, but this amount could not wash away the stain on her reputation if she had really been defamed by Hun Sen,” Ky Tech said.
“There was only one aim – to defame Samdech Hun Sen.”
Rights activists, however, said the verdict was a clear case of political manipulation.
“Poor people can’t make complaints against high-ranking people. This is the custom of Cambodia,” said Chan Soveth, a senior monitor at local rights group Adhoc.
The outcome of the appeal, he said, was a foregone conclusion from the moment the original verdict was delivered.
“The Phnom Penh court had made its decision already, [a] decision made not by the court but by high-ranking people. The Appeal Court could not make a new ruling,” he said.
Thida Keus, executive director of rights group Silaka and secretary general of the Committee to Promote Women in Politics, said she was disappointed the court did not conduct its own investigations into the case, adding that the verdict could discourage women from getting involved in politics.
“Since [Mu Sochua] is among the most proactive women activists and lawmakers in Cambodia, I am disappointed she wasn’t given more respect,” she said.
“I feel very sad that this has happened – not just for women, but also for the public and the international community who know the judicial system in Cambodia is not free.”
The ruling came a week after the Governing Council of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union adopted a resolution expressing “deep concern” at the sentencing of Mu Sochua for making statements that “clearly fall within the limits of her freedom of expression”.
The resolution, adopted in Geneva on October 21, also decried the removal of Mu Sochua’s parliamentary immunity in June to pave the way for the defamation case, and said she “did not enjoy her right to legal counsel of her choice” following Kong Sam Onn’s resignation in July.