A case for defamation brought by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen against the country’s long-time opposition leader opened at the Tribunal Judiciaire in Paris on September 1. Hun Sen brought the case in response to Sam Rainsy’s claims, made on Facebook in 2019, that he was behind the deaths of trade union leader Chea Vichea, killed in 2004 at the age of 36, and former police chief Hok Lundy, who died in 2008.
Hun Sen denies any role in the death of Chea Vichea, who had received death threats before he was shot in front of a newspaper kiosk in the capital by two men on a motorbike. Then-King Norodom Sihanouk stated that the killing had a “political character.” The death of Hok Lundy is attributed by Cambodian authorities to a helicopter accident. A second defamation case against Sam Rainsy filed by deputy police chief Dy Vichea, the son of Hok Lundy and the son-in-law of Hun Sen, is being considered at the same time.
Lawyers for Sam Rainsy argued that the accusations were made in good faith and have a sufficient factual basis. They said in their court submission that Hok Lundy died as a result of a bomb placed in his helicopter on the orders of Hun Sen. This was because Hok Lundy was preparing to reveal that Hun Sen had ordered him to kill Chea Vichea, the submission said. Sam Rainsy and Chea Vichea worked together to create Cambodia’s first trade union.
“The struggle for freedom can’t be separated from the struggle for truth,” Sam Rainsy told the court. “I have always defended the public interest and the national interest. The world must understand what is happening in Cambodia.”
Hun Sen’s French lawyers argued that Sam Rainsy’s allegations were motivated by personal animosity . They said little in court about Chea Vichea, but pressed Sam Rainsy on the evidence for his claims about Hok Lundy’s death. They argued that the causes of the crash are a narrow factual question for experts, rather than a historical or political one.
Sam Rainsy said that experts who are too scared to testify have told him that the destruction of Hok Lundy’s French-made Airbus helicopter could only have been caused by a bomb. “Hun Sen had the motive to silence Hok Lundy forever,” he said.
There has never been a clear reason given for why Hok Lundy was on the helicopter flight from Phnom Penh to Svay Rieng on November 9, 2008. The helicopter had an anti-lightning protection system, but the black box, if there was one, was never recovered and analyzed. The only inquiry into the crash was officially closed within 24 hours of the accident.
That shocked all the experts who know about the case, Sam Rainsy told the court, pointing to contradictory government explanations of the crash. A full examination of the remains of the helicopter was essential but was avoided. If he had still been a member of parliament rather than having being expelled, he said, he would have demanded a parliamentary enquiry.
Sam Rainsy was the target of an attack in Phnom Penh in March 1997, when grenades were thrown at a demonstration march he was leading. The attack killed 16 people and left about 150 injured, including Chea Vichea. Sam Rainsy has always maintained that Hun Sen was behind the attack, which the prime minister denies.
Sam Rainsy has French and Cambodian nationality, and an investigating French judge in December 2021 ordered that two leaders of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit should face trial in a French court for the grenade attack. “If the Cambodian prime minister is able to avoid being sent to a court for judgement, this is purely due to his immunity as head of government,” Sam Rainsy’s lawyers argued in their defamation case submission.
The court is scheduled to reach a decision on October 10. The one safe bet is that the cases will revive international awareness of the deaths of Chea Vichea and Hok Lundy – and the historical pattern of political assassination in Cambodia of which they are a part.
Sam Rainsy pointed to the absurdity of appearing as a defendant in Paris while not being allowed to do so in Phnom Penh. As yet there is nothing to suggest that Hun Sen wants a change of legal venue. Despite Sam Rainsy’s numerous convictions in Cambodian courts, there has never been any attempt to extradite him from France. He has said that he will go to Cambodia and appear in court on September 15 on further charges of conspiracy, which six other opposition figures will also face. That’s if his travel ban to the country is lifted, and his supporters are allowed to greet him – neither of which the Cambodian government is likely to permit.