Cambodian opposition official testifies in defamation case filed by election monitor

A senior official for Cambodia’s main opposition party accused of defamation for claiming there were irregularities in the June 5 local commune elections said his trial is a waste of time after testifying before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday.

On June 17, the National Election Committee (NEC), a supposedly impartial election monitor, filed a lawsuit against Son Chhay, vice president of the Candlelight Party, for telling journalists that the NEC stole votes to allow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to win more races than it should have.

CPP candidates won roughly 80 percent of the 11,622 contested commune council seats, outpacing Candlelight contestants by five to one.

The suit claims that Son Chhay’s comments damaged the NEC’s reputation. It asks that he publicly apologize to the monitoring body.

“I want to know what is not right about [my comments],” Son Chhay said outside the court. “Many NGOs who monitored the elections also said the same thing. Which parts are not true? It is strange. This is a bad example of the democratic process.”

Son Chhay said that he continues to stand by his statements and will not apologize for them. His criticism of the NEC should be protected by Cambodia’s freedom of speech laws, he said.

RFA was not able to reach NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea as of Tuesday evening.

Son Chhay is next due in court on Friday to testify in a similar lawsuit filed by the CPP, which is seeking U.S. $1 million in damages.

Son Chhay must reveal evidence of the election irregularities or be held responsible before the law, CPP spokesperson Chhim Phal Virum told RFA’s Khmer Service.

The court should clearly explain what is covered under freedom of expression protections and what is considered a crime, Am Sam Ath, chief of general affairs for the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho), told RFA.

“Most politicians express their political views, so we should consider that,” he said.

In 2017, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which at that time was the main opposition party, was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court, a move that paved the way for the CPP to win every seat in the National Assembly in the 2018 general election.

Following the dissolution, three CNRP members who were serving on the NEC resigned, leaving it without legitimacy according to observers. The ban on the CNRP kicked off a five-year crackdown on political opposition, with many of those affiliated with the party arrested and detained on charges like conspiracy, incitement, and treason.

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