The vice president of the Candlelight Party has been found guilty of defaming the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the National Election Committee (NEC) following comments he made in regard to the June commune election results.
Son Chhay was ordered by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to pay the CPP $750,000 in damages and the NEC $2,150 for criticizing the running of the poll, which resulted in an overwhelming victory for the ruling party and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
He was also fined a further $1,900.
The CPP demanded $1 million in compensation after Son Chhay told a radio program, two days after the June 5 ballot to elect local councilors, that the election results “do not reflect the will of the people who were intimidated. Their votes were bought and stolen.”
According to the NEC, the CPP won about 5.3 million popular votes and 9,338 council seats out of the 11,622 seats contested while the Candlelight Party won 1.6 million votes, taking 2,180 seats.
Human rights groups claimed the polls were marred by the disqualification of candidates and the jailing of opposition activists.
The court heard the 66-year-old had “excessively exaggerated and accused the CPP and NEC of controlling the election process.” However, he did “not provide any evidence that these statements were true.”
CPP lawyer Ky Tech used the hearings to extol the virtues of the ruling party.
“The CPP has great advantages for the country, has a good reputation and has massive support. The defendant’s actions are demeaning to the CPP and seriously affect the party’s leadership and its members,” he said.
Son Chhay denied the charges, saying he had simply passed on information of concern from election monitors for the NEC. He was not in court as the verdict was read out but speaking after the decision, he said there was little to comment on because “we expected such a verdict.”
His defense lawyer, Choung Choungy, said the trial was about free speech and that the ruling was unjust. His legal team was considering whether or not to appeal.
This case was closely observed by human rights groups and from abroad. Son Chhay is a dual-Australian-Cambodian citizen and was awarded an Order of Australia in 2010 for his work with the Cambodian diaspora.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, noted that losing political parties often complain about the results but the duty of the NEC was “to investigate those complaints, not file a lawsuit against the complainant.”
But the NEC said in a statement that the court’s decision had clearly showed that Son Chhay’s claims of vote rigging and other irregularities were unfounded.
“Through the ruling of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today, the NEC established its innocence and regained the honor and good reputation for the name of a national institution,” it said.
The Candlelight Party emerged last year from the remnants of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the courts in 2017 after massive and sometimes violent street demonstrations.
The CNRP’s absence from contesting national elections in July the following year enabled the CPP to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly.
Since then hundreds of CNRP supporters have been rounded-up, convicted, and jailed, some in absentia, for incitement and treason, in a series of five mass trials. Former CNRP President Kem Sokha is still before the courts for treason more than five years after his arrest.
However, Son Chhay’s defamation trial barely lasted two working days.
Phnom Penh is sensitive to criticism and has rejected a report by the World Justice Project which ranked Cambodia second from the bottom in its Rule of Law Index 2021, at 127 out of 128 countries.