CAMBODIA: Why should an MP defamation plaintiff be sued and have her immunity suspended? 

At a news conference on 23 April 2009, Ms Mu Sohua, Member of Parliament (MP) for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), flanked by her lawyer, announced that she was going to file a defamation lawsuit against Prime Minister Hun Sen. This decision followed a public speech Hun Sen had made in which he attacked the opposition and made offensive remarks against an unnamed woman who Mu said was no other woman than herself. The next day, Hun Sen was making preparations for a counter-lawsuit against her and her lawyer for defaming him during that news conference.  While this counter-lawsuit was being prepared Hun Sen’s officials already mentioned the lifting of Mu’s parliamentary immunity if the court so requests to be able to prosecute her and Hun Sen himself confirmed this eventual parliamentary action against Mu after his lawsuit had been filed.

Both Mu’s lawsuit and Hun Sen’s counter-lawsuit were filed in the Court of Phnom Penh on 27 April by their respective lawyers.

Mu’s lawsuit is based on a public speech Hun Sen made on 4 April in Kampot province which is Mu’s constituency. In his  speech he told villagers not to expect any help from him if they supported any opposition party: “I tell clearly the political message that if (villagers) follow an opposition party, don’t come to rely on Hun Sen, I cannot help”, he said.

Hun Sen went on to get at the opposition and a particular woman, saying: “The opposition parties only use people as their instruments to attack the government, and in Kampot province, there is one cheung klang (a Khmer phrase literally meaning strong leg) who is a woman, but I don’t need to name (her) as women also include Som Kim Sour (a female MP and a secretary of state). Strong indeed, though this doesn’t mean strong for any other things, but strong at provoking, inciting, causing troubles.” Then he mentioned what that woman had done in the 2008 election and over recent months. He said: “Even in the national election campaign (July 2008), (she) went to hug someone, but (she) accused someone of undoing her blouse’s buttons. I can’t understand it. (She) was pitiably suing him. Mighty strong! (She) went, even uninvited, to a meeting. On that day, when coming out of (that meeting), I realized (she) went to attend it uninvited. This is what is called a shameless clique, crassly shameless, including its female and male (members), and like leader like members (of that clique).”

Mu Sochua has claimed that Hun Sen was referring to her even though he had not mentioned her by name. In support of her claim she said that, “He doesn’t have to mention me by my name; he was talking in the context of the opposition party.” There are two opposition parties, SRP with 26 MPs and Human Rights Party (HRP) with three MPs, all male. Mu Sokhua is the only MP for SRP for Kampot province. Som Kim Sour whom Hun Sen mentioned is a female MP for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for Kampot province as well.

Mu also said that “in Kampot, there was only one woman during the election campaign who had a court case.” During the July 2008 election campaign in Kampot province, Mu confronted an army officer who she spotted was using a state vehicle in the campaign for the ruling party, a use which was illegal. There was then a confrontation between her and the army officer. A struggle ensued in which the officer twisted her arms and her blouse was torn open. She afterwards sued him for assault and the case has since been in court. Mu was barred from entering a forum on the economy held in February 2009 which she tried to attend without any invitation. On another occasion she was, in fact, invited but was barred from entering a regional seminar on the role of parliaments held in March when she arrived late.

Mu Sochua has felt very much offended when Hun Sen had called her “cheung klang”, a Khmer phrase which, according to her, can mean “someone who is like a gangster, a woman gangster, a prostitute.” She has also found offending his remark that she hugged that army officer. She has asserted that Hun Sen had abused her “dignity” and in her lawsuit she claims damages of 500 Riels (12.5 US cents). She seems to have enough evidence to support her claim that Hun Sen’s remarks were directed at her although she was not explicitly named and her ensuing lawsuit against him for defamation under Article 63 of the Cambodian criminal law known as UNTAC Law. Under this law as amended, defamation is a non-custodial criminal offence. It is a misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine from US$250 to 2,500.

For their part, Hun Sen’s officials have denied he had directed his remarks at Mu Sohua. Khieu Kanharith, Government Spokesman and Minister of Information, said Hun Sen did not refer to her and mention any name or any MP in his 4 April speech. Cheam Yeap, MP for CPP, said there was no evidence Hun Sen referred to her, and “without clear evidence the court will dismiss the lawsuit”, adding that “in Kampot, there are 600,000 to 700,000 people and half of them are women.” For his part, in another public speech made on 29 April, Hun Sen maintained he had insulted “no woman.”

Hun Sen was offended by what Mu Sochua and her lawyer had said in her 23 April news conference and filed a counter-lawsuit. Phay Siphan, the Spokesman of the Council of Ministers, said that “Mu Sochua’s action was designed to bring outside pressure on Cambodia.” Khieu Kanharith said that Mu had “gathered foreign NGOs to attack the Prime Minister” and, as a result, a number of critical letters had already been sent to him. Regarding the counter-lawsuit, he said Hun Sen “could not remain silent; otherwise people would assume (he) has defamed her.” In his lawsuit against both Mu and her lawyer, Hen Sen claims damages of US$2,500 from each defendant.

While this counter-lawsuit was being prepared, government officials were already mentioning the lifting of Mu Sochua’s parliamentary immunity. On 24 April, Om Yentieng , senior advisor to Hun Sen and president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, told the media that MPs from the ruling party would meet to lift her immunity if the court found she was at fault.

For his part, in his 29 April speech, Hun Sen called on the Parliament to lift Mu’s immunity. Alluding to his party’s majority of more than two thirds that are required for this decision, he said that the lifting of Mu’s immunity “is as easy as ABC”. Apparently as a reply to her repeated statements that his own immunity should be lifted as he also faces the same type of lawsuit she has filed, Hun Sen said: “I respect the court, and I prepare myself if the court requests an investigation. I do not believe CCP lawmakers will suspend my immunity.”

The mentioning of the lifting of Mu Sochua’s prior to and Hun Sen’s call for it soon after the filing of his counter-law against her seemed to be deliberate and were meant to threaten and intimidate her. They also meant to pressurize the court to prosecute her and seek the suspension of her immunity for the purpose. This is yet another instance of the use of courts by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government “to persecute political opponents” when he had succeeded in subduing his political opponents by the same means in the past: court action, lifting of immunity, imprisonment or exile,  and then pardon if they surrendered to him.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is very much concerned that the court will fail yet again to assert its independence, ensure equality before the law and uphold the rule of law, all clearly stipulated in Cambodia’s constitution, if it is to yield to that pressure and decide to investigate Hun Sen’s case against Mu Sochua and not her case against him, and only seek the suspension of her immunity. The MPs for CPP will kill off equality before the law, commit a abominable act of injustice, and establish dictatorship under the one-party system which the Cambodian people had already rejected in the UN-organised election in 1993, if they also yield to Hun Sen’s pressure and suspend Mu Sohua’s immunity and not his.

The AHRC therefore strongly urges Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government to respect the separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary, equality before the law and presumption of innocence. They should not interfere in the work of the court and the Parliament. For their part, Members of Parliament of all colours should act, as clearly stipulated in their country’s constitution (Art.77), as representatives of their constituents and their whole nation, and not their respective parties, or on the order of anybody. Furthermore, they should consider that the parliamentary immunity is so fundamental to democracy and it can be suspended only when any of its fellow members has committed very serious crimes – of which defamation is not one

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-092-2009
Countries : Cambodia,