PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian court on Tuesday found the country's exiled opposition leader guilty of defamation for alleging that a senior government official sought to inflate Prime Minister Hun Sen's online popularity by buying "likes" for his Facebook page.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, guilty and ordered him to pay a fine of 10 million riel ($2,500) in addition to 15 million riel ($3,750) in compensation to Sam Soeun, a senior official assigned to oversee Hun Sen's Facebook page.
Hun Sen has a very active online presence, and his opponents likewise use the internet to mobilize supporters. The rivalry between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy evolved into a "Facebook war," with each seeking to claim a greater number of "likes."
At the height of their battling in March, the Phnom Penh Post published its finding that most of Hun Sen's "likes" originated from abroad, raising suspicions about their legitimacy. Currently, Hun Sen's page has 6.1 million "likes," and Sam Rainsy's has 3.3 million.
Cambodia's courts are widely seen as being under the influence of Hun Sen's government and his ruling Cambodian People's Party.
The conviction is the latest in a series of cases against opposition leaders in what is generally seen as an attempt to disrupt their organizing efforts ahead of local elections next June. The next general election is not until the middle of 2018, but holding power at the local level is an advantage when national polls are held.
Sam Rainsy is the most prominent target of these prosecutions, and has been in exile since last November to avoid a jail term on a conviction that he had thought was covered by a royal pardon. There are several other cases pending against him, at least two involving online postings. The government this month banned his re-entry from abroad, making it more difficult for him to fight the charges even if he chooses to return.
Deputy party leader Kem Sokha has also been tied up in legal knots after a well-orchestrated scandal involving his alleged mistress, and was sentenced to a five-month jail term for refusing to appear in court to testify in a related case. He has been holed up at party headquarters in the Cambodian capital for several months.
On Monday, a court sentenced an opposition senator to seven years in prison over comments he posted on Facebook criticizing a 36-year-old border agreement with neighboring Vietnam. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Hong Sok Hour guilty of falsifying public documents, using fake documents and inciting chaos.
Sam Soeun filed his lawsuit about Facebook "likes" in March after Sam Rainsy accused him of being involved in a plan to boost Hun Sen's popularity by buying "likes" originating in places such as India and the Philippines, as well as ordering civil servants and soldiers in Cambodia to set up dummy Facebook accounts.
Judge Im Vannak said Tuesday that Sam Rainsy acted with ill intentions.
Sam Rainsy, in a statement posted on Facebook after the court's ruling, repeated his original allegation.
"Prime Minister Hun Sen has been manipulating Facebook figures in order to boast about his (apparently impressive but fake) popularity, which he uses as a political justification to legitimize the ongoing violent crackdown on his more and more numerous critics," he said.