Son Chhay, a Cambodian opposition politician and former Adelaide school teacher, has asked judges in his criminal defamation trial to declare their political allegiances as hearings resume in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
The 66-year-old was charged with criminal defamation after he criticised the local commune elections in June, which led to complaints lodged by the National Election Commission (NEC) and the long ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Political issues should be dealt with politically not in the court. The question is, are the judges a member of the ruling party? How can they judge someone from another party. This is the important issue,” he told AAP outside the court on Thursday.
Son Chhay is vice-president of the opposition Candlelight Party which was forged out of the remnants of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). It was outlawed in late 2017 enabling the CPP to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly at elections a year later.
Since then hundreds of CNRP supporters have been convicted and jailed, some in absentia, for incitement including the retired member for the Victorian parliament Hong Lim, who was acquitted in October last year.
Son Chhay, a dual Australian and Cambodian citizen who was awarded an Order of Australia in 2010, said after a brief hearing that the charges were about politics and the national election due in Cambodia in July next year.
“This country is under the control of the ruling party by using the courts to intimidate the opposition or political activists, it’s unfair,” he said.
“It’s so clear that Cambodia is not going to have a free and fair election,” he said. “This intimidation has gone on for many years.”
Today’s hearings were taken up with procedural matters between prosecutors and Son Chhay’s defence team led by Choung Chou Ngy, including a request from the bench for a draft statement in regards to amendments to be made to legal documents.
Human rights groups also claimed the charges are politically motivated.
“The entire premise for the case against Son Chhay is ludicrous and the charges against him should be thrown out,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director for the Asian division of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“This is a scurrilous, retaliation-driven prosecution driven by the ruling party and its allies that shows the zero sum nature of politics in Cambodia under the dictatorial control of the CPP,” he told AAP on Thursday.
Hearings are expected to resume on October 7.