The legal team of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has filed a lawsuit against Soeung Sen Karuna, a senior official of local rights group ADHOC, for defamation.

The lawsuit alleges that Sen Karuna insulted the party through his comments cited in a piece by the US-based online media outlet The Cambodia Daily Khmer, and is demanding two billion riel ($500,000) in compensation.

The February 2 piece extracted Sen Karuna’s comments made in his earlier interview with Radio France International (RFI), in which he called on all political parties to resolve their difference by political means. 

On February 4, CPP president Hun Sen suggested that the party’s legal team look into Sen Karuna’s comments.

Sen Karuna, deputy president and spokesman of ADHOC, is frequented for comments on political and human rights issues.

The RFI’s January 31 interview centred around Son Chhay, vice-president of the opposition Candlelight Party. 

Chhay was sued by both the CPP and the National Election Committee (NEC) over his public allegations of irregularities and vote rigging in the June 5 commune council elections. He lost both cases.

In October 2022, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found him guilty of defamation and ordered him to pay the CPP roughly $750,000 in compensation.

In the RFI interview, Chhay said he was unable to pay the fines and compensation, which total more than $1 million for both cases, and would have to sell his home to make payment.

The Cambodia Daily Khmer cited the RFI story in its February 2 follow-up, with comment from Sen Karuna. 

The portion of the follow-up that has drawn the ire of the CPP reads: “The ruling party always uses the court as a shield and to put pressure on its political rivals. He [Sen Karuna] said all political parties should use a mature approach in their contest. The culture of threatening political rivals should come to an end, to set an example for future generations.”

In their complaint to the court, the CPP’s legal team suggested that the comments were intended to slander the CPP, with the intention to provoke ill-will and discrimination against the ruling party, especially ahead of Senate election later this month.

Following the CPP’s lawsuit, Sen Karuna took to social media, claiming that he did not name certain political parties in his interview with the RFI.

In his February 5 Facebook post, he stressed that his comments were made with the intention of strengthening respect for human rights, law, social justice, and democracy, without serving the interests of – or the intention to attack – any political party.

“Using my comment or altering it to openly attack a political party was not my intention or purpose. Therefore, I do not acknowledge it,” he said.

However, the CPP also issued a statement supporting their legal team and asking the courts to provide them with justice.

“Slanderous exaggeration and smears which affect the reputation, dignity and value of any individual, politician or party is not the freedom of speech which is permitted by law,” the statement said.

It added that partisan politics should not be mixed with legal measures, and that no individual should hide behind an NGO to commit illegal acts.