Cambodian opposition politician loses defamation case

Son Chhay, Vice President of Candlelight party, speaks to media representatives in front of Phnom Penh Municipal court on October 7, 2022. - A prominent Cambodian opposition politician -- who also has Australian citizenship -- was convicted of defamation on October 7, 2022 for criticising the country's June local elections in which strongman Hun Sen's party won a landslide victory. (Photo by AFP)

PHNOM PENH (AFP: A prominent Cambodian opposition politician with Australian citizenship was convicted of defamation on Friday (Oct 7) for criticising local elections in which strongman leader Hun Sen's party won a landslide victory.

Son Chhay -- deputy leader of the Candlelight Party -- alleged the National Election Committee was biased in favour of the ruling Cambodian People's Party.

He also claimed there were instances of vote-buying and voter intimidation.

Both organisations denied the allegations and filed separate defamation cases against Son Chhay, a long-time ally of exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday found him guilty of the defamation charges and ordered him to pay US$750,000 in compensation to the ruling party and a $4,250 fine to the state.

Government critics say the conviction is an attempt to discredit Son Chhay ahead of national elections next year.

Son Chhay's lawyer Choung Chou Ngy told reporters he would appeal.

"I see the case as politically motivated, (they want) to stop him," he said.

Following the hearing on Friday morning, Son Chhay said he wanted to improve the electoral system.

"Stop intimidating, stop threatening, don't buy votes, and don't disturb the work of the political parties that are not in the government," he told reporters, referring to Cambodian authorities.

Prime Minister Hun Sen's party won a landslide in local elections in June, taking roughly 80 per cent of seats.

The Candlelight Party, which alleged the elections were not free and fair, managed to gain some traction, polling at 18 per cent.

One of the world's longest-serving leaders, Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for more than 37 years and has vowed to run for office again next year.

In 2018 his party won every seat in a national election.

Critics and rights groups say he has ruthlessly crushed dissent by jailing opponents and activists ahead of every election.

Australia's ambassador to Cambodia Pablo Kang said diplomats attended the hearing Friday.

"Disappointed he was found guilty of defamation re media comments earlier this year. We continue to call for genuine + free political participation in lead-up to 2023 elections," Kang tweeted.

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