MINISTER of Information Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that Prime Minister Hun Sen had ordered officials of the Cambodian People's Party to halt legal action against Chea Mony, brother of slain union leader Chea Vichea, after he blamed the government for his brother's killing.
The announcement during a Radio Free Asia broadcast reverses the government's position stated earlier this month that it had already begun legal action against Chea Mony.
Khieu Kanharith could not be reached for comment Sunday, but Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak confirmed the order, though he declined to provide any further details.
Chea Vichea, former head of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was gunned down in 2004. Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun were convicted of the crime the same year, but the Supreme Court ordered their provisional release in December 2008, citing contradictory evidence in their previous trial.
During a hearing on August 17, the Appeal Court announced a new investigation into the case and ruled that the two men were to remain free until a verdict was handed down.
Chea Mony said following the hearing that he remained convinced the government had been involved in his brother's killing - comments that prompted Khieu Kanharith to say initially that the government had no choice but to file a legal complaint.
Chea Mony on Sunday welcomed the U-turn. "I would like to congratulate the government, especially the prime minister, for reversing this decision, and again I would urge the courts to find the real killers and bring them to justice," he said.
"Hun Sen's decision is a good strategy because no one should be sued by the government for defamation or anything else. Our country has the rule of law and democracy, so we must find the truth."
Rights groups welcomed the government's climbdown on Sunday, describing it as a vital step towards restoring freedom of speech in Cambodia.
Ny Chakrya, of the rights group Adhoc, said: "I support this change of stance, which shows the government is capable of acting with maturity. Even if our politicians are criticised, they can respond with patience."
Am Sam Ath, head of an investigative team with the rights group Licadho, said the government had been wrong to take the words of a grieving man so literally.
"Chea Mony made his statement in the Appeal Court because he was upset that his brother was murdered five years ago and the real killers still haven't been found," he said. "If the government were to sue him for that, it would spell the end for freedom of expression."
The Appeal Court ordered further investigations into the 2004 killing of trade union leader Chea Vichea following requests from the defence lawyers of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, the two men accused of the killing.
"This case is still not clear, which requires us to conduct further investigations involving some police in relation to the [slaying]," presiding Judge Chuon Sunleng said after the two-hour hearing.
He ordered that suspects Born Samnang, 28, and Sok Sam Oeun, 41, remain free until the investigation is closed and a verdict handed down.
During the hearing, the two men again declared that they had not been involved in the killing, accusing the police who arrested them in 2004 of forcing them to confess to a crime they didn't commit.