Former Funcinpec official and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Lu Lay Sreng was found guilty in absentia of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen today for comments made in a private phone conversation that was secretly recorded and disseminated without his knowledge.
In the leaked phone call, Lay Sreng alleged that Prime Minister Hun Sen had paid the royalist Funcinpec party to take vacant National Assembly seats following the widely decried dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Despite defamation being defined as public speech, and the fact that Lay Sreng's remarks were private and surreptitiously recorded, the 77-year-old was ordered to pay 500 million riel (about $125,000) to Hun Sen.
Lay Sreng, who fled to the US in October, also called King Norodom Sihamoni a “castrated chicken” during the call for remaining silent on the political crackdown.
The conversation was leaked online by the anonymous pro-government social media personality “Seiha”, who has been behind numerous other high-profile leaks seen as damaging to ruling party opponents.
“What Lu Lay Sreng said was done with ill intentions to harm the reputation of Samdech Hun Sen,” Hun Sen’s lawyer, Ky Tech, said at court yesterday. “The conversation was private, but when it was posted to Facebook by Seiha, the public could hear it."
Judge Y Thavrak delivered the verdict, ordering Lay Sreng to pay not only the 500 million riel in damages, but also an additional court fine of 8 million riel (about $2,000).
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the Cambodian Criminal Code is “unequivocal” in defining defamation as comments “intended for the public”.
“The use of defamation charges is a tool commonly used throughout the world to silence critics, be they journalists, political opponents, analysts or human rights defenders. Sadly, Cambodia is no exception,” she added.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said the verdict “will set yet another chilling precedent that threatens free speech across the country”.