Opposition leader Sam Rainsy welcomed the $1 million lawsuit Prime Minister Hun Sen filed against the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president on Wednesday, telling RFA it will give the country another shot at seeing the truth about the regime.
“I am not surprised by the lawsuit. I am happy,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “I congratulate him as he continues to file more lawsuits against me. The more the merrier. That gives me more opportunities to reveal more of the truth.”
In the suit, Hun Sen accused his political rival of defamation for remarks during a Jan. 14 speech in Paris in which Sam Rainsy accused the Cambodian strongman of giving a $1 million bribe to rising opposition social media star Thy Sovantha to persuade her to switch loyalties to the ruling party.
Thy Sovantha had made a name for herself by attacking Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) through social media.
But this year she abruptly changed her tune and began attacking CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha as the government engaged in a wide-ranging probe into a purported affair between him and a young hair dresser.
In December Kem Sokha and a provincial CNRP official Seang Chet were granted royal pardons in the case against the CNRP leader, but five other people accused in connection with the case remain in prison.
In his Jan. 14 remarks, Sam Rainsy, who was joined by Kem Sokha via Skype, talked about what he called the judicial double standard faced by the CNRP’s members and human rights workers who are jailed on charges over what amounted to a few hundred dollars.
“What about Hun Sen who bribed Thy Sovantha a million dollars?” he told the supporters. “Why has no one taken any actions against him? That one million dollars comes from the proceeds of corruption and is used to bribe bad people to organize demonstrations and attacks against the CNRP.”
According to an article in Phnom Penh Post, Thy Sovantha recently announced that that she has received $3 million from international donors to fund a series of university scholarships.
Leaked phone messages allegedly show the prime minister’s second son Hun Manith – head of the military’s intelligence unit – conspiring with Thy Sovantha to discredit Kem Sokha, according to local media reports.
A long line of lawsuits
While Thy Sovantha filed a separate defamation lawsuit against Sam Rainsy earlier this week that seeks $250,000 in damages, Sam Rainsy has been down this legal road before, as there have been six lawsuits filed against him by government or CPP figures.
In September he was found guilty of defamation for claiming that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s social medial team bought “likes” on Facebook from “click farms” abroad to increase the appearance of support.
And in December, he was sentenced to five years in prison in absentia for posting what authorities said was a fake government pledge to dissolve the Southeast Asian country's border with Vietnam.
Sam Rainsy has been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest for a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
In October, Hun Sen ordered police, immigration and aviation authorities to "use all ways and means" to prevent the opposition leader from returning to the country, as he has pledged to do before the country’s elections.
Cambodia’s local elections are set for June 2017 and the national elections are scheduled for 2018. In the disputed 2013 elections, the CPP lost 22 seats in its worst showing since 1998.
A weaponized judiciary
Opposition leaders and outside observers, including the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, have criticized the Cambodian judicial system’s lack of independence.
Rarely do CPP politicians face charges, but the list of CNRP and other opposition lawmakers dragged before the courts is long and includes Sam Rainsy and deputy Kem Sokha, as well as opposition lawmakers like Um Sam An and Meach Sovannara, the CNRP's media director.
The prosecutions don’t stop with opposition lawmakers, as anyone opposing Hun Sen is fair game for the courts.
Land rights activist Tep Vanny also fell afoul of this system, when she was convicted on Sept. 19 of insulting and obstructing public officials and was sentenced to six months in prison in relation to a protest in November 2011 near Hun Sen’s residence.
She first gained prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak Lake land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from the neighborhood surrounding the urban lake in Phnom Penh. The lake was filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.
Seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents— is a major cause of protests in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Laos.
She is waiting for the Cambodia’s appellate court to rule on her conviction.
“We are prisoners of conscience. We need to be released,” she told RFA. “Good and real leaders are those who take good care of their own people and the country.”
Defense attorney Choung Chou Ngy said that the appeal enumerates the procedural defects in the case, including a lack of counsel during her trial.
“The court has severely violated the law,” he told RFA. “How on earth could a trial court render a verdict on a criminal case in the absence of the defense counsel?”
Back to the future
Meach Sovannara, the CNRP’s jailed media director, told RFA the courts employ a double standard.
He and 10 other activists were jailed on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site in the capital in 2014.
“Those who beat lawmakers were sentenced to only four years of imprisonment, three years of which were suspended,” he said. “Now they are released and promoted.”
He was referring to a recent decision by Hun Sen to promote two members of his elite bodyguard unit despite their convictions for brutally beating a pair of opposition lawmakers near the National Assembly in 2015.
Sot Vanny and Mao Hoeun became full colonels on Nov. 17, barely two weeks after they were freed from prison after serving only one year of a four-year sentence for beating the lawmakers.
On Oct. 26, 2015 CNRP lawmakers Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamroeun were dragged from their vehicles and savagely beaten by protesters after the two men attended a morning meeting of the legislature.
The attack occurred as more than 1,000 supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) surrounded the parliament building, calling for Kem Sokha to step down as first vice president of the National Assembly.
Tep Vanny told RFA that she feared the Hun Sen wanted to take the country back to the dark days of the Khmer Rouge, infamous for its 1975-79 reign of terror that killed as many as two million Cambodians.
“The current leader has been in power for many years. He should not rule the country like the ways [Khmer Rouge leader] Pol Pot did,” she said. “He should not bring the country backwards.”
Reported by Vuthy Huot and Moniroth Morm for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.