An employee of the United Nations World Food Programme walked free yesterday after serving a six-month prison term for incitement, in what some have called an ongoing campaign of intimidation against UN staff by the Cambodian government.
Seng Kunakar, who worked as a logistics officer at a WFP warehouse in Russei Keo district at the time of his arrest, was released from Prey Sar prison at midday, his lawyer Chou Sokheng said yesterday.
“I took a release letter to the prison and he was freed,” Chou Sokheng said.
Seng Kunakar was arrested on December 17 and, in a rapid-fire trial less than 48 hours later, was convicted of criminal incitement for sharing printed articles from the anti-government website KI-Media with co-workers.
Government officials later said the articles had branded Prime Minister Hun Sen and other senior officials “traitors”.
Seng Kunakar was charged under the Kingdom’s new penal code, which went into effect only weeks before his arrest. His conviction attracted condemnation from local and international rights groups, who warned that more such prosecutions could follow as a result of the code’s provisions on political speech.
Pung Chhiv Kek, founder and president of Licadho, said yesterday that Seng Kunakar’s conviction had been “groundless” and called for amendments to the penal code that would decriminalise defamation, disinformation and incitement.
Other observers said the conviction’s timing raised questions about potential political motivations on the part of the government.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said yesterday that the incident was “clearly” part of an “ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation by the government against the UN”.
“There is a larger government initiative to intimidate the UN system – to get them to back off, and become less willing to protect civil society and human rights defenders,” he said.
The message was, ‘We can go after any of you’. Not only to WFP, but also the Cambodian staff who work with the UN agencies
The arrest of Seng Kunakar came just days after Hun Sen lashed out at a media report that cited WFP as saying that Cambodia was at risk of food insecurity. Following a directive from Hun Sen to clarify the issue, Finance Minister Keat Chhon met with WFP country head Jean-Pierre DeMargerie on December 13.
In a letter dated December 18, the day after Seng Kunakar was arrested, DeMargerie apologised to the premier about the reported characterisation of Cambodia’s food security situation.
This controversy followed a call from the prime minister in October for the expulsion of Christophe Peschoux, the outspoken former head of the local UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights who departed last month. Earlier last year, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong threatened to expel UN resident coordinator Douglas Broderick after comments he made concerning the passage of the Kingdom’s anti-corruption law.
Government officials adopted a defiant pose following Seng Kunakar’s conviction in December.
“He deserves to be in jail,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said at the time. “Do you want to be in jail too? If you want to be in jail, do like him, and we’ll put you in jail right away.”
Yesterday, he denied that the government was seeking to intimidate the UN. “We hold a partnership with the UN,” he said, pointing to the agreement with the UN that established the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“We don’t put pressure on anyone, but we expect everyone to be our partner.”
Phay Siphan said the government did not mind criticism. “But insult, harassment, we don’t need that.”
Keo Remy, a spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit at the Council of Ministers, said yesterday that civil society organisations had the right to criticise Seng Kunakar’s arrest, though he warned them not to commit “incitement affecting social stability and safety”.
Robertson said Seng Kunakar was “being used as a political pawn” by the government against the UN.
“The message was, ‘We can go after any of you’. Not only to WFP, but also to the Cambodian staff who work with the UN agencies,” Robertson said.
“The sad part is that the UN country team has not found the collective spine to stand up and say, ‘We’re here as international civil servants and we have a set of principles… and we will not be intimidated.’”
The reluctance of the UN to speak publicly about Seng Kunakar’s case, he said, foreshadowed only further intimidation. “They’re being pushed around because they’re allowing themselves to be pushed around,” Robertson said.
Casey McCarthy, a spokeswoman for the UN resident coordinator, said yesterday that the UN “welcomes” the release of their employee, noting that DeMargerie had visited Seng Kunakar twice in prison. “We look forward to him being able to resume his duties as a logistics officer at the earliest possible opportunity,” McCarthy said.