On Monday, a court in Paris ruled against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in a defamation case he brought against his erstwhile political rival, the exiled Sam Rainsy, whose Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forcibly dissolved five years ago on spurious accusations of plotting a U.S.-backed coup. Hun Sen and Dy Vichea, his son-in-law and deputy national police chief, had filed complaints against Rainsy (who lives in exile in France) over Facebook posts dating back to 2019, in which the opposition figure alleged the prime minister was behind the helicopter crash in 2008 that killed national police chief Hok Lundy, Dy Vichea’s father. He also accused Hun Sen of being connected to the death of prominent trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004.
The question in all of this is why Hun Sen took the case to a French court. Sam Rainsy, after all, has been convicted on countless charges of defamation by Cambodian courts. In fact, in December 2021, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Rainsy in absentia of defamation for “falsifying information” regarding the death of Hok Lundy. His combined charges, which include other trumped-up criminal charges, would see him jailed for life if he ever returned to Cambodia, which Hun Sen has prevented him from doing since 2019. On Tuesday, Hun Sen said that Rainsy would never be allowed to return.
But in his 38 years as prime minister, Hun Sen has never brought a legal dispute to a foreign court. In the early 2000s, he and his wife, Bun Rany, threatened to sue a French newspaper after it alleged that they played a role in the murder of Piseth Pilika, who was alleged to be Hun Sen’s mistress. (Rumors surfaced earlier this year that they may do so after another French newspaper repeated these accusations, although your columnist cannot confirm anything on that.)
The reasons why Hun Sen has avoided foreign courts are obvious. He really has no need for foreign justice. He and his party dominate the Cambodian court system. For instance, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Dith Munty, who ordered the dissolution of Sam Rainsy’s CNRP, is a member of the ruling party’s elite Permanent Committee. His son was this week promoted to the post of agriculture minister. Hun Sen, who has his own “charity” that funds the training of a new generation of subservient lawyers, has even said that he wants to become a lawyer “to further help vulnerable people” once he resigns from office, just as he has spent most of his time in office undermining the rule of law.
Hun Sen gave his own explanation on Tuesday, the day after the ruling. “What did Hun Sen want from this that prompted him to trouble Rainsy at his home? Hun Sen wants innocence and nothing else,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “[Rainsy] claimed that they won the case somehow and I don’t know how they can possibly say this.” Hun Sen also asserted that the French court ruled that he is “innocent” of Hok Lundy’s death, which the court didn’t. It stated: “The correlative factual basis for this imputation [that Hun Sen is responsible for Hok Lundy’s death] is tenuous.” This was more about the scant information provided by Rainsy for proof of his allegations, rather than the French court opining on Hun Sen’s alleged involvement.
Indeed, there was something for both sides in the ruling. The French court found that Rainsy’s remarks were defamatory but absolved him because of his right to free expression, while adding that they were “part of a major general-interest debate over respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia.” Based on accounts provided to the court by human rights groups, and given that the two men first convicted of Chea Vichea’s murder were later acquitted, indicating a lack of investigation by the Cambodian authorities over this crime, then Rainsy could “reasonably formulate the conviction” that Hun Sen might have played some part in the crime, the court ruled. Rainsy had alleged that Hok Lundy was killed because he was about to reveal that Hun Sen had asked him to kill Chea Vichea. Again, the lack of a full investigation into his helicopter crash, as well as multiple accounts of what happened, meant that it was “legitimate” for Rainsy to question Hun Sen’s involvement, the court added. According to Sam Rainsy’s lawyer, Mathias Chichportich, “the tribunal indicates that it has sufficient elements to affirm that Hun Sen was the originator of the assassination of trade union leader Chea Vichea.”
Perhaps Hun Sen did merely want to set the record straight. After all, he can now claim that a French court found that Rainsy had defamed him, and that it argued Rainsy had little evidence for his accusations about the deaths of Hok Lundy and Chea Vichea. His team, naturally, has been keen to focus on this side of the ruling. “The judge said Sam Rainsy submitted various documents that are vague and complex, which the court could not accept as clear evidences [sic],” Hun Sen’s lawyer, Ky Tech, told the government mouthpiece Fresh News. “The court also confirmed that Sam Rainsy had indeed defamed prime minister Hun Sen,” he added. As such, Hun Sen can now assert – while ignoring the complexity of the court ruling and the fact that he lost the case – that Rainsy’s musing cannot be trusted because even a French court found him to be defamatory.
However, Hun Sen’s plans could backfire. This story was in all the Cambodian newspapers on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as in international media, once again stirring up rumors of Hun Sen’s involvement in various murders of politicians or activists. Writing last month, David Whitehouse, a journalist and Rainsy’s ghost-writer, put it: “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.” And this will continue in Paris. Late last year, another French court issued indictments against two Cambodian generals, Huy Piseth and Hing Bun Heang, for allegedly carrying out a grenade attack on a protest march being led by Sam Rainsy in Phnom Penh in March 1997. This followed a case filed by Sam Rainsy. The French court had issued a summons for Hun Sen to attend to answer questions about his role, but the French government blocked it on grounds of Hun Sen’s head of government immunity.
Perhaps that is the explanation. Hun Sen wanted to take on his lifelong rival in a foreign court, in Rainsy’s hometown, before he steps down from office. Once he resigns as prime minister, sometime between 2023 and 2028, he will no longer enjoy that immunity and (once out of office) would have to personally attend any civil case against Rainsy.
Another possible explanation is more chilling. It’s rather common within Cambodia for critics of Hun Sen and his government to be convicted in CPP-ruled courts on defamation charges. In fact, Son Chhay, deputy leader of the Candlelight Party — a recently-reformed opposition group that came second at June’s local election with around 22 percent of the vote — was convicted of defaming the CPP and ordered to pay compensatory damages of $750,000 to the ruling party last week, just three days before the Sam Rainsy court decision in Paris. However, critics of the government usually have relative freedom to say what they want if they live abroad. Sam Rainsy has been unmolested by any foreign court (up until now) since his latest stint in exile began in late 2015. Put simply, freethinkers can escape the rapacious hand of the CPP’s courts if they leave Cambodia.
But perhaps no longer. Hun Sen’s decision to try to sue Sam Rainsy for defamation in Paris could be a matter of pour encourager les autres. It’s entirely possible that Hun Sen knew he’d fail in this case but that it would strike fear amongst his critics abroad. If Hun Sen could come for Sam Rainsy in a French court, could he not sue someone else for defamation in Thailand or Japan or Germany? Perhaps he might not win those cases either, but by filing a defamation case in a foreign court Hun Sen would compel his alleged defamers to hire expensive lawyers and suffer the financial implications. (After all, the French court also dismissed Rainsy’s countersuit that Hun Sen should pay for his expenses related to the proceedings.) And most government critics who live abroad lack the significant funds that Sam Rainsy can muster from the vast Cambodian diaspora. As such, that might compel journalists, analysts, and activists abroad to consider the same self-censorship that their counterparts still in Cambodia must engage in on a daily basis.