The Old Municipal Building

I first heard about Mu Sochua[i] when my mother forwarded me “Crusader Rowing Upstream in Cambodia”[ii] a New York Times article profiling her campaigns for women’s rights, land rights, and reelection to parliament which have led to political and legal entanglements with the current Prime Minister.  Now hardly a week goes by where Mu Sochua’s name does not appear in the newspaper.

The court battles began back in April, 2009 when Mu Sochua alleges the Prime Minister referred to her as “cheung klang,” a Khmer term which translates to “strong legs” in English. The term is typically used in reference to men and is understood to mean “gangster” making it especially insulting towards a woman. Mu Sochua contended the statement affected her “honor and dignity”[iii] and set forth to “claim justice for all Khmer women,” by suing the Prime Minister for defamation. The case was never heard before the courts, dismissed for lack of evidence.

Following the dismissal, both Mu Sochua and her lawyer Kong Sam Onn were accused by Prime Minister Hun Sen of defamation for having brought forth the defamation case against him in the first place. News reports indicate Kong Sam Onn was threatened with disbarment and subsequently dropped Mu Sochua’s case, apologized publically to Prime Minister Hun Sen, and formally joined the ruling Communist People’s Party (CPP).[iv]

Mu Sochua’s case is an interesting look into the intersection of politics and law and may be indicative of the reality in Cambodia today. I had the unique opportunity to observe Mu Sochua’s appeals trial at the Supreme Court on June 2nd, 2010. The following is an account of my experience in court that day. Much of the information is based on the translated summaries and subsequent discussions I had with a first-year student at the University of Law and Economics in Phnom Penh who also attended the trial.

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Early morning crowds observe across the street

I arrived at the Old Municipal Building early on June 2nd, 2010. As I got off the moto, dripping in sweat from the hot morning sun, I found the street filled with small clusters of military and police authorities chatting and observing the crowd.  Having had arrived to Cambodia just one week earlier, I felt a bit intimidated by the police presence and unsure of the procedure for attending court. After scanning the crowd for others I might know, I slipped behind a reporter, handed my ID to the guard, and allowed my bag to be searched. Without any questions I managed to squeeze through a set of double wooden doors as they were closing behind the overfilled courtroom.

Shortly after finding a spot on the floor the first trial began.  Court proceedings are held in Khmer and for some moments I listened, uncomprehending, while NGO and media attendees leaned into their Cambodian colleagues for translation. I noticed a young man in front of me reading a copy of The Cambodian Daily[v], tapped him on his shoulder and whispered, “What is he saying?” referring to the judge at the front of the room. He explained the first case was a land dispute involving a rural landowner and the state.

Less than an hour passed before the first trial concluded and Mu Sochua was called before the court. It is important to note that Ms. Sochua was not accompanied by legal representation. According to her testimony, Mu Sochua sought representation but was not able to find a lawyer due to the troubles faced by her previous counsel. According to the Cambodian Civil Procedures, under Appeals before the Supreme Court [§5.40] it is stated that “All parties may be represented by their lawyers.”[vi] However, lawyers are only required for appearances by the accused in felony cases. The question of representation was never resolved during the trial. The prosecution asserted that Ms. Sochua should not be granted a court-appointed lawyer because she could afford one of her own. When Ms. Sochua contested that, due to the treatment of her previous lawyer, no other lawyer was willing to represent her, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s lawyer argued that she could not be sure of that because did not ask every lawyer in Cambodia. And so, after a formal reading by the Court Clerk, representing her own defense, a formal statement was prepared and delivered before the court by Mu Sochua herself.

During her statement, Mu Sochua  spoke about the importance of justice for women in Cambodia. She emphasized that her case was not about herself alone, but rather symbolized the value of all Cambodian women, and of women worldwide.  During her testimony Ms. Sochua also referenced the law: the Cambodian constitution and international standards of freedom of speech, human rights, and the rights of the child, all of which are incorporated under Cambodian law.  She also referred to Cambodian procedural law, under which the accused have the right to representation, drawing attention to the fact that the courts did not appoint her a public defender, despite her wish to be represented by a lawyer.

Following Ms. Sochua’s statement, the Prime Minister’s lawyer presented arguments on behalf of the Prime Minister, who was not present for the trial.  His main argument was that by suing the Prime Minister for only 500 Riel (roughly USD 13 cents) Mu Sochua’s defamation case was not made in good faith but rather with the bad intentions of creating a spectacle and thereby defaming the Prime Minister. Secondly, if Mu Sochua indeed represented all Cambodian women, then all Cambodian women must agree with her and find the actions of the Prime Minister objectionable. Third, he claimed that Mu Sochua further defamed the Prime Minister by reaching out to international women’s organizations to support her case. Forth, in defense of Prime Minster Hun Sen’s absence at court, his lawyer proclaimed that if the court wanted the PM present they should have gone to the Ministry Council and request his presence several days in advance (in order to allow for security to secure the premises). This was followed by audible laughter from the audience who view the argument as a weak explanation for the Prime Minister’s absence and believe the Supreme Court premises could have been secured had the PM decided to attend the trial.

There was no cross examination and little to no questioning of either side by the 5-judge panel of the court.  The court recessed for about 30-40 minutes before returning with a verdict to uphold the original decision by the Municipal Court in finding Mu Sochua guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and ordering her to pay an approximately 8 million Riel fine. The Supreme Court is the highest court in Cambodia and is considered the court of last resort and therefore their judgment is the final binding decision unless under a special procedure they are asked to consider a revision of a case decision.

Mu Sochua Speaking to the Press

Outside the courtroom Mu Sochua’s energy was high as she stood surrounded by media and supporters holding single candles, a symbol of the Sam Raimsey political party. Police officials stood off to the side as she delivered a defeated yet defiant speech, first in Khmer, and then again in English for the international NGO and media presence. She discussed the failures of the Cambodian judicial system and lack of freedom of speech within the nation. She said her verdict was evidence that the Cambodian judicial system is not independent of the political ruling party, evidence that the system is not “just” but “justice is for sale”.  She was adamant in her commitment to not pay the court-ordered fine, stating that she “could not, in her conscious, pay such a fine”. She encouraged Cambodians to not live their lives in fear but to stand up to injustices.

Following the press statements Mu Sochua led an impromptu march of supporters from the Old Municipal Building along Sihanouk Blvd. in front of the Royal Palace and past the Ministry of Justice and towards the Sam Raimsey offices.  After a few minutes of walking, a pick-up truck barreled through and police armed in riot gear jumped out and swarmed the crowd of supporters preventing them from walking further. Mu Sochua confronted them directly and with media in tow snapping photos cried, “what is illegal about walking through the city?” After about five minutes of this face-off, the police retreated to their pick-up trucks and drove off allowing the small group of supporters to continue along their way.

Police Preventing Passage

Although the June 2nd incident ended peacefully, there is considerable debate about what will happen next and the drama continues to be played out in the national media with newspapers speculating on the final outcome. Some contend the courts will take action to seize her assets or issue an arrest in order to collect the already overdue 16.5 million Riel fine. Others claim such actions would provoke protest and amplify her cause.

As a student of the Cambodian legal system with a background working in the field of nonviolent conflict I continue to follow the story with great interest. Is Mu Sochua picking a fight with the Prime Minister or is she waging a nonviolent campaign for people’s rights in Cambodia? What precedent might this case set for future cases of defamation and freedom of speech in Cambodia and what can we conclude about political interference in the court system from this case?

As the story continues to unfold, Mu Sochua is ever-persistent in her claims that she will not pay the fine. Upon return from the United States last week she announced yet again, “if they want, they can arrest me any time, my address is already known.”[vii]

Negotiating with the Police


[i] To learn more about Mu Sochua you can visit her website: http://musochua.org/ or facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2881835&id=7906996&ref=mf#!/sochua

[ii] Mydans, Seth “Crusader Rowing Upstream,” New York Times, February 21, 2010 (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/world/asia/22cambowomen.html?_r=1)

[iii] Duong Sokha, “Opposition MP Mu Sochua files lawsuit against Hun Sen on grounds of defamation,” Ka-set, April 23, 2009 (http://cambodia.ka-set.info/hot-news/news-mu-sochua-hun-sen-defamation-srp-090423news-mu-sochua-hun-sen-defamation-srp-090423.html)

[iv] “Media, opposition party under fire from Cambodia’s strongman” Southeast Asian Press Alliance, January 23, 2010 (http://www.seapabkk.org/newdesign/newsdetail.php?No=1205)

[v] This daily English newspaper does not currently have an active online presence, but information can be found here: http://www.camnet.com.kh/cambodia.daily/

[vi] International Human Rights Law Group Cambodia Defenders Project, Chapter Five: Appeals, (http://www.globalrights.org/site/DocServer/Cambodia_Ch5.pdf?docID=191) June 9, 2010.

[vii] Meas Sokhea, “Sochua defiant on return”, Phnom Penh Post, July 7, 2010 (http://www.phnompenhpost.com/index.php/2010070640294/National-news/sochua-defiant-on-return.html)

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