Opposition leader Sam Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in jail on Thursday and ordered to pay around $14,000 in fines and compensation for defaming Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
With some 30 armed police surrounding the Phnom Penh Municipal Court compound, Presiding Judge Chiv Keng delivered his rulings on the two separate lawsuits Thursday afternoon, after a morning hearing that included testimony from two witnesses and the reading of a statement from Hun Sen.
Chiv Keng said Sam Rainsy had defamed Prince Ranariddh when he told Beehive 105 FM Radio that the National Assembly president had accepted $30 million and an aircraft from Hun Sen to form a coalition government with the CPP in 2004.
Chiv Keng also ruled that Sam Rainsy had defamed Hun Sen when he filed a lawsuit against the premier alleging that the prime minister planned to have political opponents assassinated and was behind the March 1997 grenade attack on a public rally that left more than a dozen dead and over 120 injured. No one has ever been brought to justice for the attack.
“Sam Rainsy is a party leader,” the judge told the courtroom. “He has influence so when he said something that was not the truth, he negatively affected Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s dignity and that of the Funcinpec party.”
Of the premier, the judge said: “Prime Minister Hun Sen is innocent.”
“This has affected his dignity and reputation internationally and in his political life,” he added.
Sam Rainsy was sentenced to nine months in jail and ordered to pay $2,000 fines for each lawsuit. He was also ordered to pay Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen each $5,000 in compensation.
Earlier in the day, Sam Rainsy’s lawyer, Som Chandina, defended his client’s allegations against Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen.
He said that the newspaper, Voice of Khmer Youth, had originally reported that the Funcinpec president had taken money to form the coalition government, and that his client was merely citing the article. The newspaper was never sued for the article.
In a statement read by a clerk to the court, Hun Sen denied the allegations of bribery.
“Prince Norodom Ranariddh and I agreed to form a coalition government in order to solve the political crisis,” the statement read. “I didn’t order someone to buy Prince Norodom Ranariddh.”
Hun Sen also maintained that the aircraft in question was given to Prince Ranariddh because of his position as National Assembly president.
Som Chandina presented a letter in court from Hun Sen that allegedly showed that Prince Ranariddh was given an airplane for his private use before he was made National Assembly president.
In relation to the defamation lawsuit filed on behalf of the prime minister, Hun Sen’s lawyer, Kar Savuth, said that Sam Rainsy’s allegations that Hun Sen was behind the grenade attack had damaged his client’s reputation.
Only two witnesses testified during the trial. But rather than provide evidence to support Sam Rainsy’s allegations, opposition lawmakers Kuoy Bunroeun and Sok Soty asked Chiv Keng to dismiss the lawsuits.
Som Chandina said after the verdict that he would file a complaint seeking a retrial, as his client was not present in court.
In a statement released to coincide with the trial, Sam Rainsy, who fled the country in February after the lifting of his parliamentary immunity, called the Phnom Penh Municipal Court hearing “farcical.”
“Knowing how the Cambodian court operates, nobody will take seriously the “sentence” that will be pronounced today against me. I am confident that justice will eventually prevail and that I will be able to come back to Cambodia very soon,” Sam Rainsy wrote.
“All democrats must help stop Cambodia’s ongoing totalitarian drift,” he added.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith and Prince Ranariddh’s cabinet chief, Noranarith Anandayath, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said his embassy was still studying the court’s decision, but “our initial reaction is that this is a major step backward for Cambodian democracy.”
(Additional reporting by Lee Berthiaume)
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