PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (WOMENSENEWS)--It's monsoon season here and dawns often bring a sodden feeling and gray rain.
But on August 4, when Mu Sochua arrived at the Phnom Penh courthouse, the air crackled with intensity.
As the world knows by now, the Cambodian member of parliament and internationally-renowned leader in women's rights was given a guilty verdict for defamation against Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the majority Cambodian People's Party.
Human rights groups have denounced the verdict as politically biased and Sochua's supporters showed up to signal their support.
I was among them.
When a Cambodian Human Rights activist learned about Sochua's impending verdict, she knew how critical the outcome would be for Cambodia. So she asked me to go as an international witness and to document the proceedings. I knew about Sochua and her work but had never met her.
My co-worker Rachel Leventhal and I left San Francisco on July 31, arriving in Phnom Penh August 2. The next day, the day before the verdict, Sochua came to meet us at my hotel. As soon as we met, Sochua took us into her inner circle and requested that we document the verdict from the inside as much as possible.
We ate ice cream on the verandah of my hotel, talked about the case and the current political climate in Cambodia.
Sochua was relaxed, friendly, outgoing. She seemed determined to not be moved into fear.
She asked us to meet her early the next morning at party headquarters, as we would travel with her to the courthouse to hear her verdict.
Early the next day at the party headquarters, we bundled into Sochua's car, along with a cameraman from German television, and drove across Phnom Penh through the quiet gray morning.
Getting out of the car, we were greeted with a crowd of about 50 journalists and hundreds of supporters filled the intersection.
About a dozen policemen on the scene were visibly edgy.
After the court adjourned, police tried to prevent Sochua from speaking to the crowd and tried to block journalists from approaching her.
Rather than engage in confrontation, Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition party that carries his name and of which Sochua is a member, quietly told the group to continue walking--and they did.
One to two hundred of Sochua's party members and supporters, surrounded by journalists, staged an impromptu march to the Independence Monument, Cambodia's symbol of democracy and freedom. The monument was erected after the overthrow of French colonial rule in 1954. The march ended back at party headquarters, a walk of about two to three miles.
One man walked almost the whole way on crutches, until finally someone gave him a ride on the back of a motorbike.
Police and Military Forces Grew
The longer we walked the larger the police and military force grew around us.
A core group of us, which included members of the Women's Wing of the Sam Rainsy Party, ended up linking arms to stay together and to surround Sochua, who led the way carrying a candle.
It was fitting that Sochua attracted this envelope of female supporters.
As one of Cambodia's first female lawmakers, along with Chanthol Oung, Sochua helped to write the Cambodian Constitution, which includes laws opposed to discrimination against women.
Sochua was the first head of the Ministry of Women for the newly formed democracy. After she stepped down from that role in 2007, she joined party politics, campaigning with the Sam Rainsy Party to represent her home district, Kampot Province, in Parliament.
She has received numerous international awards for her work on human rights, particularly for her efforts to stop sex trafficking, and has been a vocal women's rights advocate both in Cambodia and internationally for decades.
But in that group of women, she saw herself, and was seen, as a sister.
Each time we reached a major intersection the police tried to break our intertwined arms.
It became a civil rights march, where we tried to exercise the freedoms of democratic people. Our treatment proved the limitations of that freedom.
After about three hours, we neared the Independence Monument. As the march went on, the numbers of police continued to grow, with increasing degrees of weaponry. At times they tried to separate us from each other.
Some men were pulled out of our group. The police and military managed to isolate my group; a knot of about 10 with Sochua at its center.
We marched ahead. Now, instead having supporters all around us, we were in the middle of police in riot gear.
"They're protecting us," one woman joked.
As we got closer to the monument the police stepped up their force against us. They pushed in on us with their riot shields to stop our movement on all sides.
Sochua Never Faltered
It was hard to continue but Sochua, in the lead, never faltered.
The rest of us gripped each other's arms ever more tightly and continued to walk forward.
Finally the group of marchers behind us managed to catch up.
By the time we reached the Independence Monument, Rainsy, other party members, supporters and the flock of journalists were back together with us.
During the march, calm had reigned.
But after arriving at party headquarters several hours later, emotions ran high. There was elation at getting back safely mixed with anger over the injuries of the men who had been protecting us.
We had seen the police roughing a few people up along the way, but didn't know the extent of the injuries until we arrived back at party headquarters. Eventually all the men who had been injured also made it back.
We had also seen some other Westerners--possibly human rights observers--get singled out by the police along the way. But when we asked around party headquarters afterwards no one knew who they were. We only knew that, in the end, there were no arrests.
Many said they felt demoralized by the guilty verdict.
"Today is a day of darkness for Cambodia," said Sochua. "The guilty verdict is a clear result of the politicization of the courts."
After leaving her 2007 post as director of the Ministry of Women, Sochua, who is the mother of three girls, ran for election as a member of parliament for the Sam Rainsy Party, building her campaign among the country's most disenfranchised: as the representative of the very rural Kampot Province.
Since then, she has continued to steadily reach out to the common people of Cambodia, employing an Obama-style strategy of building on the grassroots.
After the march, I asked Sochua about the crowd of people in the streets closest to the party headquarters. Was this the neighborhood with the most supporters for their party? She emphasized to me that all of Cambodia was supportive of the opposition party, but most were afraid to speak out.
"The opposition party is not the minority," Sochua said after the rally. "We are the voice of all the people of Cambodia, but most people are afraid to speak for fear of reprisal. That is why I must do what I do. I voice their concerns."
The verdict was the latest episode in an increasingly heightened exchange between Hun Sen and Sochua over the past year.
In April of 2008, Sochua confronted Cambodian People's Party officials for illegally using government vehicles and staff when she came across them campaigning in the countryside in her provincial district. The officials were driving a government car to campaign for Hun Sen for the July 2008 election.
Sochua attempted to take a picture of the car but the officials forcibly stopped her, ripping her shirt open in the process. Sochua then tried to hold on to the car until someone could take a photograph. The car began to drive away, towing her several meters until she let go.
Later that month, Hun Sen gave a speech to her party's supporters, in which he described Sochua as "strong leg," a term considered degrading towards women.
She sued him for defamation.
Hun Sen countersued claiming that he wasn't referring to her in his speech and that her lawsuit constituted defamation of his role of Prime Minister.
At the courthouse on August 4, police blockaded all journalists and all but a handful of Sam Rainsy Party members from going into the courtroom with Sochua. The verdict only took about 15 minutes.
Most likely due to unexpected international attention to the case, Sochua's punishment was relatively light: a little more than $4,000. Sochua has said she will appeal the fine.
Many human rights groups in Cambodia see Sochua's guilty verdict as another sign of escalating oppression by the ruling party.
"This verdict is a significant blow to freedom of expression," said Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights nonprofit.
Pilorge predicted that the verdict will discourage members of the National Assembly from publicly speaking their minds. "It is yet another example of the perilous state of democratic freedoms in Cambodia," she said in a briefing after the march.
Stephanie Guyer-Stevens is executive producer of Outer Voices. She has been documenting women's rights leaders in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands since 2003.
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