In early April, when Prime Minister Hun Sen made an offhand comment about an unnamed woman in Kampot province taking off her shirt and rushing to hug a man during the 2008 general campaign, few people took notice. Several of his entourage snickered behind him and his speech went on as usual.
In fact, the prime minister’s remarks sounded to Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua like a reference to an alleged assault she’d complained of in Kampot province, when she was a 2008 candidate for parliament.
At the time she alleged she’d had her blouse torn open after she accosted an official for campaigning for the ruling party in a vehicle with military plates; she further said she had been struck by a vehicle.
To Mu Sochua, Hun Sen’s remarks—for her, a clear reference to her campaign assault—which also mentioned a “strong-leg,” were derogatory. So later that month, she sued.
The suit and Mu Sochua’s request that the prime minister apologize gained the speech national attention. When Hun Sen countersued, the world took notice.
On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court fined Mu Sochua 8.5 million riel, or $2,500, and demanded she pay Hun Sen 8 million riel, or $2,000, in damages. (Mu Sochua said she would appeal. Her demand for 500 riel in reparation had already been dropped by the court on the grounds the complaint lacked evidence.)
Along the way, human rights monitors closely followed the suit, expressing concerns that the principle of respect for women was being forgotten, as questions of politics in the courts persisted.
“Firstly, I am so sorry to hear that there is such a litigation, and secondly, I hope that in the future there will be real democracy in Cambodia,” Kek Galabru, president of the rights groups Licadho, told VOA Khmer by phone this week.
Mu Sochua, a Cambodian-American, said before the verdict Tuesday she was the victim of an insult devaluing Cambodian women and all women, but she said she still had respect for the prime minister.
“I respect Prime Minister Hun Sen, and to say that I had the intention to defame Hun Sen is totally wrong,” she told VOA Khmer by phone. “This shows that there is an intention to turn a victim into a perpetrator.”
In a recent public hearing, Hun Sen’s lawyer, Ky Tech, said the damages would be donated to an orphanage.
“My demand is to pay for various compensation and losses,” Ky Tech told VOA Khmer by phone. “The number is not restricted in the law. It depends on how big the damage is to our mind and heart.”
Meanwhile, political observers say the suit-countersuit was just the tip of an iceberg. There are many cases in which the governemnt is using the courts to silence critics, whether they are lawmakers or journalists.
“For some reason, Hun Sen, as powerful as he is, continues to look at people as a threat, and he seems to think that people like Mu Sochua and some journalists, somehow, threaten his hold on to power, and he over reacts,” said Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. “He is not showing political maturity.”
The government has denied the use of legal action to oppress dissenting voices.
“Filing a complaint to the court does not mean targeting the opposition or a demand for compensation,” said Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers. “And using the court to provide justice is fair. When Mu Sochua filed against Hun Sen, why don’t we say she is trying to silence Hun Sen?”