PREY NOB district, Preah Sihanouk — Bul Sopheap recalls shaking on the stand when she was called to face defamation claims against her in the Preah Sihanouk Provincial Court.
More than a year after she claimed to the same court that defendants were encroaching on her land in Prey Nob district, two guards for land claimed by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew, Hun Chea, were pursuing a defamation suit against her for $50,000 plus lawyer fees. Sopheap appeared in court alone, unable to afford a lawyer, she said.
From the house of her daughter, where she currently stays after selling her own home to pay off Amret microfinance for a partially-paid $10,000 loan, Sopheap shuffles through a pile of court documents kept in a plastic sheath.
She told VOD on December 2 that she filed these just to get Cheap Sotheary, Preah Sihanouk coordinator for human rights group Adhoc, into the courtroom with her, but Sotheary was denied access.
“When we talked, I was struggling to speak. I had no chance to speak about this,” she said of her claims to that land, which she wanted to make in court.
The defamation hearing against Sopheap was one of several from which Sotheary, the local Adhoc coordinator, says she has been denied access by provincial court administration since early last month. In a province racked by land disputes and claims of human rights abuses, Sotheary said she was disturbed to see the court restricting access to an organization offering support to victims. A court administrator, however, balked at her claims.
Sotheary was first denied access to the provincial court in early November, she recalled to VOD from her office in central Sihanoukville. She had followed the usual procedure for attending a trial — writing a letter to explain which hearing she would attend and why. However, the guard at the court that day, who she says knew her well from her regular attendance, barred her from entering the building.
“I don’t know why this is happening. It’s a public hearing,” she said.
‘I Can’t Get in’
Even the letter-writing procedure was a new policy dating back to around a major Covid-19 outbreak earlier this year, she said.
Sotheary said she would direct the letters to the head of the provincial court, explaining her role with Adhoc, her desire to listen to a case at the request of defendants, and her previous history monitoring cases. Though she found it a little taxing to do extra work, she hadn’t been denied access before November.
Last month, however, she was denied access to the courts in five different cases, despite being allowed into similar hearings in the past.
“I stopped applying for access because even if I apply, I can’t get in,” she said.
Rather than the judges rejecting her, Sotheary said she was stopped by guards. For the November cases, she followed the same procedure she used before, submitting a letter two days ahead of the trial. She would hear nothing from court officials, only to be barred from entering the courtroom on the day of the hearing.
When she probed a bit further with the guards, Sotheary was told this was a new policy by Ly Chandara, the court administrator, and that she could only attend if she were directly assisting a client or their lawyer rather than monitoring proceedings.
Sotheary received no explanation for the new policy, and said she couldn’t understand why as cooperation with the court was previously strong.
However, she was able to get into a hearing for Sopheap’s defamation case on November 23, but only after she went directly to the judge to ask to attend the hearing.
“If I go listen to the hearing, it is [now] wrong, you can punish me,” she said. “The aunt [Sopheap] was sobbing so I went in and the judge told me it was a public hearing, [and he asked] why would you need to submit a document. I was following the conditions required by the [court] administration.”
When asked about the court’s decision to bar Sotheary from entering, Chandara, the provincial court spokesperson, questioned the Adhoc representative’s claims that he had blocked her from entering, saying she probably did not follow proper case procedure, though he would not directly explain what she might have violated.
“You need to listen to me first. You need to ask her which cases, and what’s the name of the presiding judge … and whether she has submitted an application to listen to the hearing or not,” he said. “She cannot go to hear every case … and she has to submit an application to listen.”
He told VOD that he needed more information about cases, even after a reporter explained the details of the defamation case against Sopheap.
“You need to clarify with her first which cases and rooms … whether she is also a party to the case or not,” he said.
Sotheary, the Adhoc representative, said there were several cases she wanted to monitor. Some of them were land cases, such as the jailing of five Bit Traing commune activists in a long-lasting land dispute with a company known as Than Sour.
The five activists had been detained for weeks after about 70 residents in the commune staged a short protest on the disputed land between November 20 and 22. Some 300 police and military police swarmed the protest and jailed dozens on November 22, with all but five released later, she said.
“They were just building tents on the land. It’s not clear what they were doing [to violate the law]. It was just a small occupation,” saying they set up a campsite with tents and a cooking site.
There was also a hearing on a rape case she wanted to monitor in later November, but Sotheary said she didn’t bother applying, as she had been denied so many times already.
Since defendants and families keep asking for her assistance, Sotheary said she now waits outside the court.
“We just sit and wait for them after the questioning, whether they would be detained or released,” she said. “They hope we can give information to their families [if they’re detained], as they do not have a lawyer.”
Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin referred to the provincial court spokesperson to speak to the specifics of the case, but said in general courts have the right to limit access.
“In principle [the hearing] is public, but the court can limit the number of people who can go and what kind of target [audience] can go in, and related to some cases that need to be kept confidential. … It cannot be open to all and the decision is up to the court.”
When asked about the scenario, Chak Sopheap, executive director of the NGO Cambodian Center for Human Rights, did not address the situation with Adhoc’s Sotheary. Instead, she said that her organization had engaged with provincial courts, including the Preah Sihanouk provincial court, to monitor trials, including hearings related to gender-based violence cases, and the organization had faced no obstacles.
However, she noted that courts have been known to arbitrarily restrict access on certain controversial cases, such as trials of former opposition party leaders, adding that courts can take Covid-19 preventive measures without barring access to public hearings.
“While the publicity of hearings is not absolute, hearings can be closed to the public only in narrow circumstances defined by international law,” she said in an email. “When hearings are public, every citizen — including human rights monitors — has the right to attend them freely and without the necessity to request prior permission from the courts.”
Sopheap’s Land Dispute
The hectare of land that Sopheap kept in Bit Traing commune was among the last tracts she had left, after selling bits and pieces of the 10 or 11 hectares she and her family once held onto in the commune. One day in 2019, she came to the land, where she grows acacia, to find guards uprooting the posts she placed around her field. She found out the two guards, Try Yah and An Kumhuong, were working for CHSN Transportation, a company run by the premier’s nephew and three-star general Hun Chea, so she sought help from a commune official who she believed would back her claim.
Sopheap said Bit Traing commune officials helped her file a complaint to the court “because he saw with his eyes, they were taking poles from my land,” she told VOD. “It was quiet after, but then the company filed a legal complaint against me.”
The company, which was named in Sopheap’s complaint filed to the court, could not be reached through phone numbers listed with the Commerce Ministry.
Sopheap questioned why she would be targeted by the company for her land, adding that she is supporting herself and her 20-year-old son, who has a disability and is unable to take care of himself on his own.
“They just complain because they see my husband is in jail,” she said, saying she believes the company “wouldn’t dare” to file complaints if her husband were still around.
When he first heard about the land dispute starting in 2019, Bit Traing commune councilor Yem Samean tried to help mediate issues between Sopheap and a CHSN representative but they could not reach a solution, he said.
Samean said the area was once forested land belonging to the state, but now the company is claiming a huge area — the size of which he didn’t know — including the hectare that Sopheap claims. Her claims are shaky, he added, as Sopheap only has a copy of the communal land title she was issued in 1996 — Sopheap said the original was lost in a fire.
“She only has a piece of a copied document, while the company has the sales and purchase document” for an area including her land, he explained. “She claims that she has occupied this land from a long time ago, and she had grown trees … [so] they have failed to reach a compromise two times.”
He confirmed that he helped Sopheap file the complaint but didn’t make any comments about the case: “We gave her documents and asked her to send it to the court, because we are the authorities that have no right to decide which side should win or lose.”
She asked the commune councilor to help her file a complaint to the provincial court, which she submitted in July 2020, but they dismissed her claim. Shortly after she filed her complaint to the appeal court for review mid this year, Kumhuong and Yah filed a defamation suit against her, Sopheap and Sotheary both said.
Sopheap asked Adhoc for help after receiving the defamation summons, but Sotheary said she couldn’t provide legal counsel, as Adhoc sometimes does, because defamation is outside the cases on which the NGO intervenes — a part of its internal policy. But Sotheary said she wanted to be inside the courtroom in order to ensure the defendant was treated fairly and understood the legal proceedings.
“[Sopheap] wrote a letter to ask me to go to trial with her, but I told her I can’t go with you because the court doesn’t allow me,” Sotheary recalled. “She said ‘please help me, I don’t have a lawyer.’”
“I helped her write the letter and asked her to give it to the court, and still they don’t allow it.”
The Adhoc representative said she was able to attend appeal court hearings with Sopheap, who had asked for a review of her complaint against the guards. In that trial, Sotheary said the case was viewed more skeptically.
“Even the investigating judge asked why they were demanding so much money from this woman,” she recalled.
Sotheary said Sopheap submitted a letter requesting Sotheary’s presence five days before the defamation case, but she was denied access when she showed up on the day of the trial. Sotheary said she even went to the judge for permission to attend on Sopheap’s behalf, and while the guards initially tried to block her, she got in by speaking to the judge.
Huot Vicheat, prosecutor for the Preah Sihanouk court, referred questions to Chandara, while commune chief Meach Chan said he was not familiar with the defamation case.
Samean, the commune councilor, said he hadn’t heard about the $55,000 defamation case against Sopheap.
“We cannot use emotions to solve it … and we authorities only have the right to make a compromise,” he said. “The first time we tried to compromise … she was crying heavily in the commune hall. We pity her but she has only a copy [of the title]. If she has the original, it is easy to solve it.”
Sopheap said she will find out the decision of her defamation case by early next year, but she said the case left her unable to sleep or eat out of fear.
“I’m afraid they’ll arrest me and leave behind my son with disabilities,” she said. “This is the reason I ask the NGO to help me, if they don’t, I have to pay the money [to the complainants], and if I don’t have any money to pay them, the only way is they will bring me to prison…if I don’t feed him [my son], he doesn’t eat.”