Cambodian court upholds libel conviction against former Adelaide schoolteacher

Key points
  • Song Chhai’s Candlelight Party was the top opposition party in Cambodia’s municipal elections in June.
  • Chhai was sued after he said the election results did not reflect the will of the people.
  • Now the Supreme Court of the country upheld the earlier decision on defamation.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld a libel conviction against a former Adelaide schoolteacher and ordered him to pay a $1.2 million fine to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The ruling exhausts legal options for Song Chai, vice president of the opposition Candlelight Party and an Australian-Cambodian citizen who was awarded the Order of Australia in 2010.

This also means that he will not be able to participate in the national elections in July.

A man in headphones at a press conference.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Source: AP / François Maury

“Yes, my lawyer told me that the Supreme Court upheld the verdict late Thursday night,” Song Chai told the AAP news agency.

“I was at the hearing the week before but I wasn’t there for sentencing and I don’t feel any different than when they brought me to court in the first place.

“When the case is handled by the ruling party, we don’t expect anything but a guilty verdict,” said the 67-year-old politician.

“We will contact the Australian Embassy next week. I need more advice on what to do next.”

Repression against dissent

Song Chai’s Candlelight Party performed best in local communal elections in June, winning more than 22 percent of the popular vote.

But he was sued after he publicly stated: “These election results do not reflect the will of the intimidated people. Their votes were bought and stolen.”

The decision comes amid a long crackdown on dissent, the forced closure of the independent news outlet Voice of Democracy, and lengthy legal battles against the Candle Party, formed from the remnants of the Cambodian National Salvation Party (CNRP). .

The CNRP was dissolved by the court at the end of 2017, allowing the CPP to win all 125 seats contested in the national elections a year later. Since then, more than 100 CNRP supporters have been convicted and imprisoned in four mass trials, many in absentia, for inciting and conspiring to overthrow Hun Sen.

Among them was Hong Lim, a retired Victorian MP who was acquitted in October 2021. Late last year, another court ruled that two of Song Chai’s houses be confiscated and used as collateral to secure damages for the CPP and NIK.

“The Australian Embassy was present at the hearing, they did a good job and were very supportive,” said Song Chai.

“Only liberal democracy can promote peace and stability.”

Cambodia ranks penultimate in the 2022 World Justice Project (WJP) Rule of Law Index, ranking 139 out of 140 countries, one place behind Afghanistan and one place above Venezuela.

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