Cambodian opposition politician ordered to pay US $700,000 for defamation

Move comes after Son Chhay discussed ‘irregularities’ in the July commune elections.
By RFA Khmer
2022.10.07
Cambodian opposition politician ordered to pay US $700,000 for defamation Son Chhay, vice president of the Candlelight Party, speaks to reporters as he leaves Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 8, 2022.
Citizen journalist

A Cambodian court on Friday ordered Son Chhay, vice president of the main opposition Candlelight Party, to pay more than U.S.$700,000 in damages for defamation, his lawyer told Radio Free Asia. 

Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or the CPP, and the National Election Committee, a supposedly impartial election monitor, brought two lawsuits against Son Chhay after he talked with a news outlet about election irregularities two days after the country’s commune elections on June 5.

The Candlelight Party took about 19 percent of the country’s 11,622 local council seats in that vote, whereas the CPP captured about 80 percent. 

Son Chay said the results “do not reflect the will of the people, who were intimidated. Their votes were bought and stolen," Australia’s ABC News reported. And independent election monitors and NGOS reported irregularities.

Those comments earned him defamation charges. In addition to having to pay 3 billion riels (about $726,000) to the ruling party, Son Chay was also slapped with fines totalling 17 million riels (about $4,100) that must be paid to the CPP, the election committee and the court, his lawyer Choung Chou Ngy told RFA’s Khmer Service.

He criticized the decision, saying his client only expressed his political views and did not defame anyone.

“What Son Chhay said was to advocate for election reform but the court convicted him and ordered him to pay 3 billion riels to the CPP. It is very unjust,” he said, adding that he intends to consult with his client about the appeal process.

Son Chhay denied he was guilty of defamation and vowed to continue to criticize the election process until it is reformed.

“What I have done was not to anger anyone or for anyone’s benefit,” he told RFA.  “I talked about free and fair elections. [But] people don’t have freedom. People only express their views and are being arrested for defamation,” he said.

RFA was not able to reach election spokesman Hang Puthea for comment, but the organization issued a statement saying that justice was served. “Through the verdict today, the NEC has been proven innocent, restoring its reputation and dignity as a national institution,” it said.

The court shouldn’t have tried Son Chhay because he has the right to freedom of expression, Yi Soksan, a senior official with the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, told RFA.

“It is sad when a political party files a complaint with the NEC to resolve election issues, and not only do they  fail to resolve the issue, the institution that’s supposed to be a referee instead  files a complaint against the political party,” he said.

Friday’s verdict came amid discussions between Candlelight and the Khmer Will Party party over a potential merger ahead of the 2023 general election, scheduled for July. 

The Khmer Will Party’s president, Kong Monika, said a merger is what the people want, and would set an example for other political parties to prioritize national interest over personal ones. “The Khmer Will Party is the same as the Candlelight Party. We want supporters of democracy to stay united for a positive change,” he told RFA. 

The Candlelight Party is eager to join hands with Khmer Will, Thach Setha, the party’s vice president, told RFA.

Ruling party spokesman Sok Ey San downplayed the significance of the two parties merging. He said that the opposition has still not recovered from 2017, when the Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, which at that time had been the main opposition party.

“The CPP is not afraid. The CNRP lost to the CPP. Now the CNRP has split up to at least seven parties, and only two of those will merge so the CPP is not worried,” he said.

The Khmer Will Party did not win any seats in the communal election, garnering only 7,556 votes nationwide.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong. 

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