Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Son Chhay Charged with defamation over commune election comments

Son Chhay, vice president of the Candlelight Party waves to the media and his supporters as he arrives at Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning, July 12, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Son Chhay, vice president of the Candlelight Party waves to the media and his supporters as he arrives at Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning, July 12, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court this week charged Candlelight Party Vice President Son Chhay with defamation after he criticized June’s commune elections and the National Election Committee  (NEC) and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) responded by both filing lawsuits against him.

“[He] excessively exaggerated and accused the CPP and NEC of controlling the election process, intimidating people before and during the election, stealing ballots, and election rigging,” a warrant issued on August 9 read. “He did not provide any evidence that these statements were true.”

Phlang Sophal, Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor, confirmed that the cases had already been sent to the court for hearing.

Son Chhay declined to comment, while his lawyer Chuong Choungy said his client had not done anything wrong.

“He just raised concerns about the irregularities related to the election process and we are ready for the hearing,” Choungy said.

The NEC’s lawsuit against Chhay claims he defamed the committee by saying there had been vote-rigging, while the CPP is seeking $1 million in compensation over what they maintain were slanderous remarks about the NEC having bias in favor of the ruling party.

NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said the body has the right to defend itself against Chhay’s accusations.

“The NEC is responsible to the people and the constitution, therefore, [we] must defend our honesty and dignity,” he said. “Son Chhay’s rhetoric seriously affects the honor and dignity of the NEC.”

Chhay was not the only critic of the June 5 polls.

After the commune council elections, five election observer organizations released a report detailing irregularities including the presence of armed forces at polling stations and inadequate efforts to ensure voters were properly registered.

Kong Monika, president of another opposition group, the Khmer Will Party, said that the charge against Chhay “undermines rights and freedom of expression stated in the constitution.”

“We want to improve the electoral system, so the NEC must consider the concerns raised by political parties that participated in elections,” he said. 

He said the judiciary was being used to oppress the opposition.

Korn Savang, an election observer with monitoring group Comfrel, said most court officials are members of the ruling party and the justice system is being used to crack down on government opponents.

“Political disputes should be solved politically rather than using the court system,” he said, noting that the former president of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, and other political activists have also been taken to court or detained.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who visited Phnom Penh last week, met with Prime Minister Hun Sen and urged him to “reopen the civic and political space” ahead of next year’s elections.

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