An outspoken former Cambodian deputy prime minister, now living in exile to escape a political crackdown, was ordered on Thursday to pay about US$125,000 in compensation for defamation after the veteran politician claimed Prime Minister Hun Sen bribed a minor political party to help him dissolve the opposition.
Lu Lay Sreng was ordered in absentia by Phnom Penh Municipal Court to pay 500 million riels (around US$125,000) to Hun Sen in compensation and 8 million riels to the state in fines.
Lu Lay Sreng, who had worked in Hun Sen’s governments for 15 years in various posts, fled to the United States last year as the Cambodian strongman mounted a crackdown on opponents.
According to Ky Tech, a lawyer representing Hun Sen, Lu Lay Sreng defamed the prime minister in a leaked phone conversation which he allegedly said had paid the minor political party Funcinpec US$1 million in exchange for filing a lawsuit calling for the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
Hun Sen’s government arrested opposition CNRP chief Kem Sokha in September on charges of “treason,” and two months later the Supreme Court ruled to disband his party for allegedly planning a “rebellion” with backing from Washington, essentially eliminating any challenge to the ruling party ahead of elections this year.
After the CNRP was dissolved, its parliamentary seats were distributed to government-friendly parties, including Funcinpec.
On October 24, 2017, Ky Tech, Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana and Funcinpec filed three separate defamation lawsuits against Lu Laysreng, saying that in a wiretapped phone conversation that was leaked on social media Lu Laysreng was heard talking critically about Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni.
In that leaked phone conversation, Lu Laysreng suggested that Hun Sen had paid bribes of US$20K to each Funcinpec party officials in exchange for their accepting the national assembly seats of the CNRP following its dissolution.
Prior to Thursday’s ruling, Lu Laysreng posted a video clip on his Facebook page saying that he would absolutely not attend the hearing since the judges are under political pressure to rule in favor of the government they serve.
“I feel so ashamed on their behalf. [These judges] are well-educated people, not ignorant! Yet, they are too afraid—afraid of losing their posts,” he wrote.
Hun Sen’s government has used defamation cases to hobble opposition figures.
In late December, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered former CNRP President Sam Rainsy—who has been living in self-imposed exile in Paris since 2015—to pay 4 billion riel (U.S. $1 million) for a 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.
He dismissed that 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.
Cambodia's crackdown has drawn widespread international condemnation and concern that general elections scheduled for July will not have legitimacy.
On Wednesday in Washington a group of U.S. Senators led by Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland wrote a letter to UN Ambassador Nikki Haley urging her to step up the pressure on Cambodia.
The lawmakers called on Haley to "isolate the Cambodian government, pressure them to reverse course, and—should they not reverse course—ensure that they gain no validity from an illegitimate “election” that is neither free nor fair."
"We call on you to strongly appeal to our partners and allies at the UN Human Rights Council to address these issues at the upcoming UN Human Rights Council session, including a dialogue with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN special rapporteur for Cambodia, and representatives of civil society," read the letter.
"We also urge you to consider using your voice at the UN Security Council to raise concerns about the crackdown," said the senators.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.