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Judge uses UN law against editors

Judge uses UN law against editors

T HE Phnom Penh judge who slapped a five million riel fine and a years jail on

New Liberty News editor-in-chief Hen Vypheak said his decision was made

independently.

Ya Sokorn - who also ordered the paper be shut down - told

the Post that he was under no outside pressure to find Vypheak

guilty.

Sokorn also said it was his own decision to sentence Vypheak with

both a hefty fine and custody, one he based on the UNTAC law that provided up to

a three year jail term and a ten million riel fine.

"I judged according

to the law. If I said something inaccurate or had I misinterpreted the case, my

counselors would have disagreed."

When asked whether his court was

independent, he said: "Mmmm... yes."

Vypheak's case was the second on

what proved to be a bad weekend for the Cambodian press with the

judiciary.

The day before, Thun Bun Ly, the editor-in-chief of the Khmer

Ideal was sentenced to pay a five million riel fine, and his newspaper was also

shut down, for an article headlined "Don't Bark Again, Prime Ministers,"

published on Oct 31, 1994. Vypeak was convicted for a Feb 6, 1995 article

headlined: "Cambodia: Country of Thieves" and a cartoon showing Second Premier

Hun Sen holding a gun at the head of First Premier Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

King Norodom Sihanouk, meanwhile, petitioned Prime Ministers Prince

Norodom Ranariddh and Hun Sen to reduce the verdicts.

In a letter dated

May 22, the King said he would like to favor these two editors and their

publications. It is not known what response, if any yet, the King's letter had

on the government.

A senior government official, Information Ministry

State Secretary Khieu Kanharith said that the two sentences were "rather

severe."

"I don't think the government should jail the journalists or

shut down their papers... I think that they should only fine, and if [the

reporters] continue to insult or report untruthfully, then they should be fined

again or suspended," Kanharith said.

However, he said many local

journalists - and he specified six editors, including both Vypheak and Bun Ly -

were lacking professionalism.

Vypheak complained that his sentence was

very severe for what were articles of opinion.

"The judge considered my

case as criminal. It is not right, it is against the country's democratic

principles," said Vypheak, who along with Bun Ly, would be appealing both

conviction and sentence.

"It's insane what the Phnom Penh Municipal Court

did," he said.

"You see, they did not consider my pleas or any suggestion

on my part. They did what they had already been told to do," he

said.

"They had already prepared and decided my case. It had nothing to

do with my defendant."

"I am being accused of expressing my opinion to

spoil the government. I understand that to express the opinion can be right or

wrong."

"But what I expressed in my newspaper was basically the reality

of our society. The people understood it," Vypheak said.

Vypheak's

defender, Touch Bora, said the judge's decision was "very far" from a fair one,

but he could not comment on whether the court's verdict was an independent

one.

"As you know, ours is a young democratic country which emerged from

communism where the judicial system is not beyond the control of the government.

Perhaps this still has not yet changed and the judicial system is not 100 per

cent fair," he said.

Pin Samkhon, the President of Kampuchea Journalist

Association (KJA), said the UNTAC law seemed contrary to the Cambodian

constitution.

Samkhon said "the people can express their opinion, and not

be convicted as criminals according to our constitution."

If the

expressed opinion was not true, newspapers should be asked to respond, and then

possibly apologize before further civil action was warranted, he said.

He

said the court's decision on both verdicts was too severe and violated the

constitutional principle of the country.

He said he thought it was okay

for newspapers to be fined if found guilty of defamation, however such high

fines could be intimidatory and stop others from printing valid

opinions.

International and local human rights groups were quick to

criticize the editors' sentences as contrary to freedom of speech.

Asian

Watch Human Rights said the government's action on the freedom of expression was

"one of the most serious assaults.

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