A Paris court on Monday convicted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in a defamation case he brought against his former political rival, exiled Sam Rainsy, whose Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was disbanded. forcibly five years ago on trumped-up conspiracy charges. a US-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) for Facebook posts from 2019, in which the opposition figure alleged that the Prime Minister was behind the 2008 helicopter crash that killed National Police Chief Hok Lundy, Dy Vichea’s father. He also accused Hun Sen of being linked to the death of prominent labor 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 found guilty of countless defamation charges by Cambodian courts. Indeed, in December 2021, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged Rainsy in absentia of defamation for “falsification of information” concerning 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, something Hun Sen has prevented him from doing since 2019. On Tuesday, Hun Sen said Rainsy would never be allowed to return.
But in his 38 years as prime minister, Hun Sen has never brought a case in a foreign court. In the early 2000s, he and his wife, Bun Rany, threatened to sue a French newspaper after it alleged they played a role in the murder of Piseth Pilika, who was allegedly Hun Sen’s mistress. (Rumors surfaced earlier this year that they might do so after another French newspaper repeated the accusations, though your columnist can’t confirm that.)
Hun Sen’s reasons for avoiding foreign courts are obvious. He really doesn’t need foreign justice. He and his party dominate the Cambodian justice system. For example, Supreme Court Chief Justice Dith Munty, who ordered the dissolution of Sam Rainsy’s CNRP, is a member of the ruling party’s elite standing committee. His son was promoted to agriculture minister this week. Hun Sen, who has his own ‘charity’ which funds the training of a new generation of submissive lawyers, even said he wants to become a lawyer ‘to help vulnerable people more’ once he resigns. his office, just as he spent most of his term, undermining the rule of law.
Hun Sen gave his own explanation on Tuesday, the day after the judgment. “What did Hun Sen want with that that made him disturb Rainsy at his house?” Hun Sen wants innocence and nothing else,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. “[Rainsy] claimed they won the case somehow and I don’t know how they can possibly say that. Hun Sen also claimed that the French court ruled he was “innocent” of Hok Lundy’s death, which the court did not. It stated: “The correlative factual basis of this imputation [that Hun Sen is responsible for Hok Lundy’s death] must. It was more about the scant information provided by Rainsy to prove his claims, rather than the judgment of the French court on Hun Sen’s alleged involvement.
Indeed, there was something for both sides in the decision. French justice considered that Rainsy’s remarks were defamatory but absolved him because of his right to freedom of expression, while adding that they were part “in the context of a great debate of interest general on respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia”. Based on testimony provided in court by human rights groups, and given that the two men originally convicted of Chea Vichea’s murder were later acquitted, indicating a lack of investigation by the Cambodian authorities on this crime, then Rainsy could “reasonably articulate the conviction” that Hun Sen may have played a role 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, along with multiple accounts of what happened, meant it was “legitimate” for Rainsy to question Hun’s involvement. Sen, the court added. According to Sam Rainsy’s lawyer, Mathias Chichportich, “the court indicates that it has sufficient elements to affirm that Hun Sen is at the origin of the assassination of the trade union leader Chea Vichea”.
Maybe Hun Sen just wanted to set the record straight. After all, he can now claim that a French court found Rainsy defamed him and he argued that Rainsy had little evidence for his charges regarding the deaths of Hok Lundy and Chea Vichea. His team, understandably, wanted to focus on that side of the decision. “The judge said that Sam Rainsy had submitted various vague and complex documents, which the court could not accept as clear evidence. [sic]Hun Sen’s lawyer, Ky Tech, told government spokesman Fresh News. “The court also confirmed that Sam Rainsy had indeed defamed Prime Minister Hun Sen,” he added. As such, Hun Sen can now argue – while ignoring the complexity of the court decision and the fact that he lost the case – that Rainsy’s reverie is not trustworthy because same a French court found it defamatory.
However, Hun Sen’s plans could backfire. This story was all over the Cambodian newspapers on Tuesday and Wednesday, as well as international media, once again stoking rumors of Hun Sen’s involvement in various killings of politicians or activists. Writing last month, Rainsy journalist and ghostwriter David Whitehouse said: “The only safe bet is that the cases will rekindle international awareness of the deaths of Chea Vichea and Hok Lundy – and the historic pattern of assassination. politics 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 during a protest march led by Sam Rainsy in Phnom Penh in March 1997. This followed a complaint filed by Sam Rainy. The French court had issued a summons to Hun Sen to answer questions about his role, but the French government blocked it due to the immunity of Hun Sen’s head of government.
Maybe that’s the explanation. Hun Sen wanted to face his lifelong rival in a foreign court, in Rainsy’s hometown, before leaving office. Once he steps down as Prime Minister, between 2023 and 2028, he will no longer enjoy this immunity and (once removed from office) will have to personally attend any civil cases against Rainsy.
Another possible explanation is scarier. It is quite common in Cambodia for critics of Hun Sen and his government to be sentenced by CPP-run courts for defamation. In fact, Son Chhay, deputy leader of the Candlelight Party – a recently reformed opposition group that came second in the June local elections with around 22% of the vote – was found guilty of defaming the CPP and ordered to pay damages. -compensatory interest of $750,000 to the ruling party last week, just three days before the Sam Rainsy court ruling in Paris. However, critics of the government generally have relative freedom to say what they want if they live abroad. Sam Rainsy has not been harassed by any foreign court (until now) since the start of his last exile in late 2015. Simply put, free thinkers can escape the rapacious hand of the CPP courts if they leave Cambodia .
But maybe more. Hun Sen’s decision to try to sue Sam Rainsy for defamation in Paris could be a matter of to encourage others. It’s entirely possible that Hun Sen knew he would fail in this matter, but that would scare his critics overseas. If Hun Sen could come and get Sam Rainsy in a French court, couldn’t he sue someone else for defamation in Thailand, Japan or Germany? Maybe he wouldn’t win those lawsuits either, but by filing a defamation suit in a foreign court, Hun Sen would force his would-be defamers to hire expensive lawyers and suffer the financial consequences. (After all, the French court also dismissed Rainsy’s countersuit that Hun Sen should pay his procedural expenses.) And most government critics who live abroad lack the significant funds that Sam Rainsy can gather from the vast Cambodian diaspora. As such, it could force journalists, analysts and activists abroad to consider the same self-censorship that their counterparts still in Cambodia must practice on a daily basis.