A court in Cambodia on Friday found the exiled former chief of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) guilty of defamation and fined him for accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of bribing a political operative to undermine the opposition.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered Sam Rainsy—who has been living in self-imposed exile in Paris since 2015 to avoid convictions on similar charges widely seen as politically motivated—to pay 4 billion riel (U.S. $1 million) for a January Facebook post which alleged that the prime minister had offered pro-government social media activist Thy Sovantha U.S. $1 million to attack the CNRP.
Sam Rainsy, who was found guilty in absentia, was also ordered to pay a fine of 10 million riel (U.S. $2,500) to the state.
The former CNRP president’s accusation stemmed from leaked social media messages between Hun Sen and Thy Sovantha in November 2016, in which they discussed bringing down the opposition party, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court last month for allegedly working to topple the government with the backing of Washington.
In the leaked messages, Hun Sen calls Thy Sovantha “grandchild” and offers her U.S. $1 million. Thy Sovantha has said her page was hacked.
According to The Phnom Penh Post, Hun Sen was represented at Friday’s hearing by Ky Tech, the same lawyer who represented the government last month in its case against the CNRP.
“What Sam Rainsy said was not true and it affects the reputation of Samdech Techo Hun Sen,” Ky Tech said, using an honorific title for the prime minister.
Som Sokhong, an attorney for Sam Rainsy, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he found Friday’s ruling “unacceptable” and “failed to provide my client any justice.”
“We will discuss whether to file an appeal,” he added.
Sam Rainsy, who resigned in February this year in a bid to preserve the CNRP in the face of a law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, dismissed Friday’s decision by what he called Cambodia’s “kangaroo court.”
“Judicial officials know nothing and simply listen to instructions from their superiors, who make arbitrary decisions,” the former opposition leader said.
“I am even somewhat happy with the judgment—it gives me an opportunity to reveal more clear evidence of the wrongdoings of the government’s top leaders, who waste the national budget and undermine the dignity of the country,” he said.
“They might think that they can do whatever they want, but they are making fools of themselves in the eyes of the world and bringing shame to the country.”
Sam Rainsy said the ruling will provide the country with another chance to “see the truth about the regime.”
He later posted images of the more than 400 messages of correspondence between Hun Sen and Thy Sovantha, which he said are “real,” adding that he had his “own means of verifying … that Hun Sen gave U.S. $1 million to Thy Sovantha to carry out activities against the CNRP.”
“If someone had wanted to invent something to discredit the two concerned persons, they would not have needed to fabricate so many fake messages,” he said.
“They have never been convincingly denied by Hun Sen over that period of time, meaning that the public is entitled to believe that these photos effectively reflect the substance of a real exchange involving Hun Sen, especially when it comes to the point concerning the one-million-dollar bribe.”
Sam Rainsy is also facing a charge of incitement brought by Cambodia’s military after he urged soldiers on Facebook to disobey “dictators” who order them to shoot protesters.
Friday’s conviction comes amid a months-long crackdown by Hun Sen’s government on the opposition, the media and NGOs.
The CNRP’s dissolution followed the arrest of the party’s president Kem Sokha on charges of “treason,” and has left Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) virtually unchallenged ahead of senate and general elections set for February and July.
In recent weeks, the U.S. and EU said they plan to compile lists of individuals who spearheaded the dissolution of the opposition and other rights violations in Cambodia, with a view to level sanctions against them, and have pledged to review trade agreements with the country.
Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn funding of the elections next year, and Washington recently placed visa restrictions on “individuals responsible for undermining Cambodian democracy” in response to the arrest of Kem Sokha and the dissolution of the CNRP, which it said had called the legitimacy of the ballots into question.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.