Candlelight Party leader Son Chhay was found guilty of defamation in two cases brought against him by the National Election Committee and CPP for discussing irregularities in vote counting and candidate registrations during the June commune election.
The court found Chhay guilty in the NEC case and fined him nine million riel, or around $2,150. The CPP also sued Chhay for comments he made on a radio show, and the court awarded the ruling party three billion riel or $750,000 in damages. Chhay was also fined eight million riel, or around $1,900, in the second case. Only the CPP asked for compensatory damages.
Once the verdict comes into effect, the court said it will be publicized through the media and at election centers for two months and also at the court’s noticeboard, Chhay’s home and commune. The cost for publishing the verdict in the media will be borne by Chhay.
The charges stem from an interview Chhay gave on a Cambodia Daily Khmer-language radio show on June 7, where he said the election results did not reflect the people’s will because there has been “vote buying” and “stealing.”
During the two-part trial, conducted on September 29 and Friday, Chhay maintained he did not try to defame the NEC and was relaying information from other Candlelight officials and election monitors. Chhay said he only intended to increase confidence in the election body.
“I don’t see any reason that would lead to a defamation complaint,” he said in court Friday morning. “I already clarified that what I did was to advocate to improve the NEC.”
Lawyers representing the CPP said in court on Friday that Chhay intended to confuse the public and affect the ruling party’s prospects at next year’s national election.
Election monitors and rights monitoring groups have pointed to irregularities in the registration and conduct of the June election, including the intimidation of opposition candidates. Four small parties have approached the NEC and National Assembly to discuss reforms to the NEC, but neither body has engaged with the opposition parties.
Chhay was not present in court when the verdict was read out and could not be reached for his reaction on Friday. Choung Chou Ngy, his lawyer, said they would appeal the decision and confirmed that Chhay will not have to make a public apology, as requested by the NEC in its complaint.
“This case is a political matter and it tends to cut him off from politics,” he said outside court.
Ky Tech, the CPP’s lawyer, refused to comment on the verdict after the hearing.
Earlier in the day, the court held the trial for the CPP complaint, with prosecutor Plang Sophal asking Chhay what he meant when he said that the National Assembly was controlled by only one party and that they could do what they want.
“So, you want to refer to CPP?” Sophal queried.
Chhay said, “I wanted to refer to a single party at the National Assembly after 2018.”
The ruling CPP holds all 125 seats in the National Assembly, following a contested 2018 election that was held months after the dissolution of the CNRP by the Supreme Court in November 2017.
Chhay has been spearheading the Candlelight Party which made a surprise resurgence earlier this year and challenged the CPP in nearly all commune seats across the country. The party also announced a coalition with the Khmer Will Party this week, where the latter will contest the national election next year under the banner of Candlelight.