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Son Chhay denies defaming NEC at trial

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Candlelight Party vice-president Son Chhay leaves the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on July 12, 2022. Heng Chivoan

Son Chhay denies defaming NEC at trial

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on September 29 heard the case of Candlelight Party vice-president Son Chhay, who has been sued by the National Election Committee (NEC) for public defamation in connection with his allegations of irregularities in the June 5 commune council elections.

Chhay has also been sued by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) for public defamation in relation to the elections.

NEC has demanded a public apology from Chhay after he alleged that voter fraud had taken place, in an interview with the online media outlet Cambodia Daily.

Following the one-morning hearing, Chhay spoke to the media outside the court and denied that he was at fault. He said that at no point had he defamed the NEC, saying that although he mentioned ballot fraud and intimidation, it did not affect NEC.

NEC has reiterated that the election process was monitored by national and international observers.

But Chhay claimed that he did not see them and only saw prosecutors and eight Australian embassy officials. He had met with the embassy officials but they were unwilling to make statements, saying they were just generally observing the election. Therefore, he said, the NEC’s claims were unsubstantiated.

“I was advocating before NEC released the official results. I just wanted to let them know that they could have done a better job as I did not see many observers. NEC should conduct an investigation and check for irregularities, not sue me,” he said.

Chhay asked why a complaint had been filed against him, but not against the four other political parties and several civil society organisations that issued statements regarding perceived irregularities in the election process.

He said the court will rule on the case on October 7, the same day that the case filed by the CPP seeking $1 million in damages will be heard.

He said his lawyer was unhappy with the hearing.

“This morning, my lawyer Choung Chou Ngy was not pleased because the judge gave more opportunity to the NEC’s lawyers to speak, again and again,” he said.

According to Chhay, the court claimed that it was because his lawyer did not raise his hand to ask for clarification.

Chou Ngy said his client’s views on the election process was his right to freedom of expression, not public defamation as alleged.

Plang Sophal, spokesman for the municipal court, said he could not answer on behalf of Chhay.

“The hearing was conducted in accordance with legal procedures and all parties were allowed to exercise their rights in accordance with the law,” he said.

Som Sorida, NEC deputy secretary-general and spokesman who testified in the courtroom, told The Post that Chhay’s arguments for an acquittal – along with those of his lawyer – were based on documents from the NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), along with four other parties which are currently working to improve the electoral system.

Sorida said Chhay had alleged voter fraud but denied in the hearing that he did not do so. This was absurd, as the NEC organised and managed the elections. Political parties should not make accusations of stolen votes, he added.

According to Sorida, the prosecutors elected to charge Chhay with defamation under Article 305 of the Criminal Code, so clearly they believed they had a strong enough case to proceed.

NEC has pleaded that the court convict Chhay for public defamation and order him to issue a public letter of apology. NEC also asked the court to hand down the minimum sentence in accordance with laws.

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