Adhoc senior investigator Chan Soveth (C) is surrounded by supporters outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Monday, Dec. 24, 2012. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Senior Adhoc investigator Chan Soveth avoided detention yesterday following questioning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, but the investigating judge refused to drop the charge of aiding a perpetrator.
The court also imposed a strict monitoring condition on the rights worker, requiring him to inform the court of his whereabouts whenever he leaves the capital.
Outside the courtroom yesterday afternoon, a coterie of rights monitors from Adhoc and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights grew increasingly tense as the closed-door questioning of Soveth inched into a second hour.
At last, some 70 minutes after entering, a jubilant Soveth stepped out of the room and announced he would not be detained.
“The court decided not to arrest me, but the charges still stand,” he told a reporter outside the courtroom.
“They did not drop the charges and the prosecutor is still investigating the case,” he added briefly, before heading downstairs and out the court gates, where he was met with cheers from the roughly 100 protesters and rights workers who had gathered in front.
“We hunger for justice, so that is why we came to support him,” said 59-year-old Nge Phan, who travelled from Stung Treng to keep an eye on the proceedings.
“He is a human right worker and he still got a court summons. So what does this mean for ordinary people? What will happen to us if we dare to speak out like him?”
Accused of aiding a perpetrator – a crime that carries a sentence of up to three years in prison – Soveth remains potentially subject to further questioning and a hearing, should the court decide to press ahead.
While officials have remained tight-lipped on the details, Soveth’s lawyers said that according to the case file, the rights worker stands accused of aiding one of the masterminds of the so-called Kratie secession plot.
The accusation has been roundly denied by Soveth, his lawyers and employers.
In the wake of the Mam Sonando case, however, rights workers have kept a close eye on the situation amid mounting fears that Soveth could face similar treatment.
The independent broadcaster was in October sentenced to 20 years in prison for stoking the supposed separatist movement in Kratie – a claim widely derided as politically motivated.
“It’s a good sign they let him out. They let him at least stay out of detention. But the charge remains. Therefore, it’s still an issue that we need to monitor closely, and the issue’s still of concern,” said Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak.
And as long as the charge still hangs over the investigator, meanwhile, the pressure on him and other rights workers remains at the forefront.
“There’s a lot of nervousness among activists,” admitted Virak. “There’s a trend, a few events pointing to the fact that the government will not be shy from repressing freedom of expression and repressing some peoples’ work.”
At a brief press conference held at the Adhoc offices, President Thun Saray urged the court to drop the charges altogether.
“As he told the prosecutor he is not guilty, and as a human right activist he does not violate the law,” said Saray, adding that the monitoring conditions were unduly harsh and would doubtless impact the investigator’s ability to do his job.
Investigating judge Chhe Virak could not be reached for comment.