Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Opposition Leader Teav Vannol’s Case Heard, Gov’t Lawyer Demands $1.5 Million Compensation

Candlelight Party president Teav Vannol arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for his trial on July 8, 2024. (CamboJA/​ Pring Samrang)
Candlelight Party president Teav Vannol arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for his trial on July 8, 2024. (CamboJA/​ Pring Samrang)

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday heard the public defamation case of Candlelight Party president Teav Vannol who was charged for a comment he made with a foreign media alleging that Cambodia’s democracy has been regressing under Prime Minister Hun Manet’s leadership.

In his closing argument, a government lawyer demanded compensation of six billion riel or about $1.5 million from Vannol. The verdict has been fixed for July 25.

A complaint was filed by government lawyers in March this year, accusing Vannol of marring the image of the Cambodian government head following his critical comment on Cambodia’s flailing democracy and human rights since Hun Manet took office.

In addition, he allegedly said the government installed security cameras to monitor the activities of Candlelight leaders.

During the three-hour hearing, Vannol denied the public defamation charge, which stemmed from an interview with Nikkei Asia, with Radio France International (RFI) continuing to broadcast what he spoke with Nikkei Asia.

The prosecutor extracted Vannol’s comment that the government set up security cameras to monitor him and other Candlelight leaders’ activities, as well as the part where he talked about Hun Manet’s leadership “getting worse and worse” and that there was “no democracy in Cambodia”.

“I don’t agree with the accusation because the charge is not true,” Vannol told the court. “I have freedom of expression [like other] Khmer citizens which is guaranteed by Article 41 of the Constitution,” he said.

“I have no intention to damage the government’s honor, and I ask the court to acquit me,” Vannol added.

He acknowledged in his interview with Nikkei Asia that he made a comparison of democracy under Hun Manet’s leadership as being more “restrictive” than his father, Hun Sen’s, and that democracy had regressed, with party members, activists and critics being arrested.

Vannol denied the article which broadcast his comment, where he was quoted as saying that the “government” installed a security camera but in actual fact, he used the word “authorities” to set up the camera. 

He mentioned that there was “only one” security camera located 2,500 meters from the main road to his house, which was intended to monitor his activity.

Deputy prosecutor Chhay Hong maintained the public defamation charges and asked the judge to consider punishing the defendant Teav Vannol, who had an “ill intention” to damage the government’s reputation.

“The defendant has bad faith, which tends to damage the honor and reputation of the government,” Hong said, adding that the security camera was set up along the street to maintain public order. 

Hong said the defendant made the comment prior to the Senate election that was meant to impact the government’s honor.

Government lawyer representative Mam Channet said there were “elements of evidence” exculpating Vannol on charges of public defamation after the latter gave an interview to Nikkei Asia, and shared the information on Candlelight Party’s Telegram channel and Facebook page.

“The comment by the defendant has impacted the honor of the government of Cambodia, which affected the country’s relationship, investment, development and economy,” Channet said. “[We] demand six billion riel as compensation,” he said.

Vannol’s lawyer Choung Chougny urged the court to drop the charges because his client merely raised a “politician’s opinion”, expressing “a fact that something has been happening” in relation to democracy and freedom of expression.

He said the democratic process allowed political parties to access “free and fair election” but Candlelight Party was disqualified and party members and activists were prosecuted, arrested and convicted by the courts.

Responding to a statement by the government lawyer that Vannol’s comment “impacted both the countries’ relationship” (Cambodia and Japan), Choungy said nothing like that happened as his client made the comment in the foreign media.

“Did you see any aid being cut due to the speech by Teav Vannol, or [more] cuts [by the EU] with regards to the EBA [Everything But Arms]? It did not,” he asked. “Please consider dropping the charges against my client,” Choungy said.

Outside the courtroom, Vannol told reporters that he had no hope of the court dropping the charges as he was aware that being an opposition party, the result was that they “were never acquitted”.

“I understand that demanding compensation was excessive but this is the right of the plaintiff and I hope the judge will not agree to this,” he said.

International communities, including the United Nations stated that Cambodia experienced “shrinking civic and political freedom, and repressive practices” linked to Cambodia’s political leadership, which “seriously undermined” human rights.

Senior opposition leaders, Thach Setha was found guilty for two unrelated charges – issuing bad checks and incitement – while Son Chhay was guilty of defamation for saying that voting fraud occurred during the June commune elections.

National Power Party president Sun Chanthy was charged with incitement to disturb social order after returning from Japan, where he allegedly uttered that “under the Cambodian government leadership, people owed the banks, which forced migration in the villages”.

Vice president of National Power Party’s Kampong Cham province Meu Senghor has been placed in pretrial detention after being charged with incitement to discrimination on March 15.