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Son Chhay Found Guilty for Defamation, Ordered to Pay CPP $750,000

Opposition Candlelight Party vice president Son Chhay speaks to journalists after a hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 7, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang
Opposition Candlelight Party vice president Son Chhay speaks to journalists after a hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 7, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

The Phnom Penh court on Friday ordered opposition Candlelight Party vice president Son Chhay to pay the ruling CPP 3 billion riel ($750,000) in damages, finding him guilty of defamation for saying that voting fraud occurred during the June commune elections.

Chhay, who was not present in the courtroom for the verdict announcement on Friday afternoon, was also ordered to pay 17 million riel (about $4,250) in fines. The case follows the opposition stalwart’s claims that the National Election Committee was biased in the ruling party’s favor.

Local rights groups and election observers have noted voting irregularities during the June 5 commune elections. Chhay, formerly of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party and outlawed CNRP, is able to appeal the ruling.

The court on Friday issued sentences in two lawsuits against Chhay. The court ordered him to pay 3 billion riel (about $750,000) to the ruling party and 8 million riel (about $2,000) in fines in one case. In the second case, brought by the NEC, the court ruled that Chhay must pay 9 million riel (about $2,250) in fines.

During the hearing Friday morning, CPP lawyer Ky Tech and state prosecutor Phlang Sophal questioned Chhay about a June 7 interview with the Cambodia Daily, during which Chhay spoke of vote rigging during the June 5 commune elections​ and the NEC’s lack of independence. They described Chhay’s statements as defamatory toward the CPP, causing serious damage to the ruling party’s reputation.

“The CPP has great advantages for the country, has a good reputation and has massive support,” Tech said. “The defendant’s actions are demeaning to the CPP and seriously affect the party’s leadership and its members.”

Tech said Chhay’s statements during the Daily interview were a danger to the ruling party since the interview would remain available online and continue to confuse the public in the future. The Cambodia Daily newspaper was forced to close due to a disputed tax bill in 2017 and later rebranded as an online-only platform.

“The CPP has been building its great reputation for more than 40 years and Son Chhay’s remarks have hurt the feelings of voters,” Tech claimed. “It will affect the 2023 national election because it will make people believe [what Chhay said] and they may not vote for the CPP. It is a loss for the CPP.”

The CPP, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has been in power for nearly four decades.

Following Chhay’s comments about voting irregularities and electoral fraud, the NEC filed a lawsuit, saying he had defamed the election body, while the CPP filed its own defamation suit asking for $1 million in damages over Chhay’s claim that the NEC was biased in the ruling party’s favor.  

The CPP won 1,648 out of 1,652 commune chief positions in the June elections, with the Candlelight Party taking just four.

Rights groups, election observers and opposition parties reported various irregularities before and during the vote, including the presence of authorities at polling stations and intimidation of opposition candidates and poll workers.

In addition, during the June 5 ballot count, some observers were prevented from entering polling stations. At some sites, doors or windows were closed while ballots were counted, so people were not able to watch the process, and vote tallies were not publicly displayed.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) said in a report released last month that the NGO found irregularities on Form 1102—where vote counts are tallied—noting that the form shown by the NEC was different from the actual printed forms in a number of cases, including missing data and scratched-off figures. 

Chhay told the court Friday morning that his comments alleging voting irregularities were based on information gathered by his and other opposition parties and civil society groups, including Comfrel.

“I based [my statements] on reports from Candlelight Party’s local officials and reports from civil society and other political parties that have found similar irregularities,” Chhay said, noting the Grassroots Democratic Party, Khmer Will Party and Cambodia Reform Party.

He also said he was making the statements following the commune elections as a politician and political advocate.

“I must demand justice because it involves elections. I have a duty to speak out and such actions are not new for politicians,” Chhay said.

The accusations made by the CPP and NEC were baseless and set a bad example in a “multiparty democracy,” he added.

“Freedom of expression is important and I am the voice for my party, so I have to advocate for my party,” he said.

Chhay’s attorney Chuong Choungy said the court’s decision was unjust and he would discuss with his client about appealing.

No witnesses were called in two days of court proceedings that began last week.

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