Staff from NGO Equitable Cambodia were found guilty of defamation yesterday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, despite the prosecutor’s insistence in closing arguments that no evidence supported the charge.
Former EC employee Chan Vichet brought the cases against executive director Eang Vuthy, as well as past and present HR directors Chheang Phea and Phen Kimsong, over a memo circulated between the three regarding his dismissal by the NGO.
Presiding judge Kor Vandy found the trio guilty yesterday afternoon, saying he “cannot accept” prosecutor Seng Heang’s statement that there was “no evidence” of defamation. Each was handed an 8 million riel ($1,952) fine and ordered to pay Vichet 10 million riel ($2,441) in compensation.
Vandy said the defendants intimidated Vichet in an attempt to secure his resignation and breached confidentiality by discussing the plaintiff’s disciplinary situation with his co-workers.
Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy at rights group Licadho, said she was confused by yesterday’s verdict in light of previous hearings in the case.
“It’s obvious today’s verdict does not reflect the proceedings or testimonies of the August 8 trial,” she said.
Vichet was asked by Judge Vandy at that trial whether he had seen Vuthy speak to colleagues about his dismissal or if he had witnesses who had. To each question Vichet replied that he did not, according to a transcript of proceedings taken by an NGO observer.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the UN’s human rights office in Cambodia, also questioned yesterday’s verdict.
“When both the prosecutor and defending lawyers agree that the committal of an offence has not been proven, as was the case today, it is highly unusual for a judge to determine otherwise and natural that the legal basis of the verdict be called into question,” Lee said.
Defence lawyer Suon Bunthoeun was equally perplexed.
“Even the prosecutor said there was not enough evidence,” he told a reporter after the ruling.
The guilty verdict comes at a difficult time for EC. More than 100 of the land rights NGO’s former clients held a protest outside its offices two weeks ago at the behest of Phnom Penh Sugar Company. EC had represented many of the protesters for nearly six years in their land dispute with the Kampong Speu sugar plantation owned by ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat.
Members of the displaced community told Post reporters in June that they had witnessed Vichet go from supporting the community through his work with EC to seemingly acting on behalf of the company, although both Vichet and Phnom Penh Sugar both denied he was paid by the company.
Neither Vichet nor his lawyers could be reached for comment yesterday, but a Facebook post to his account vowed to appeal for greater compensation. The defendants also plan to appeal.
Additional reporting by Niem Chheng