Police, above, form a perimeter around the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh as defiant activist Kem Sokha.
Vowing to redouble his efforts at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), activist
Yeng Virak was freed on bail on January 11 after spending 11 days inside Prey Sar
prison on charges of criminal defamation.
Virak, who must still face charges in criminal court, becomes the first of the recently
arrested batch of five journalists and human rights activists arrested for allegedly
defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Later the same day in a speech at the National Summit on Micro-Finance, Hun Sen defended
the arrests against strident criticism from the international diplomatic community
and rights groups, insisting instead that he was "a victim."
"The human rights workers had gone beyond the limit of their rights. For myself,
personally, that is OK, but they even attacked the regime as a whole," he said.
"When they accuse this regime of being a dictatorial regime and want to topple
this regime, what does that mean? We acted only in accordance with the rule of law
and of the courts. The government did not use force to arrest anyone and the issues
of detention or charges or punishment are all up to the courts to decide."
But on January 12 the criticism of the government continued as more than 60 national
and international organizations joined 155 members of civil society to issue a statement
urging authorities to release and drop all charges against the four still-detained
human rights activists and to discontinue any plans for further arrests and prosecution.
"We welcome the release on bail of Yeng Virak on January 11, and hope that all
charges will be dropped against him and the other four individuals," read the
Joint Statement on the Arrests of Human Rights Activists.
"We are concerned that defamation charges may continue to be used to arrest
individuals who dare to express their opinions, and that citizens will become increasingly
afraid to exercise their freedom of expression. The free and public expression of
opinions, including those which are critical of the government and its leaders, is
a fundamental human right and an essential feature of any truly democratic country."
US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli told the Post the international community was concerned
by the pattern of arrests and confounded by its reasoning.
"We're all concerned. We honestly don't see the justification for the arrests
- especially the last one. The government is not about to topple... and there's no
indication of instability anywhere in the country," he said. "I shouldn't
speak for the whole donor community, but there is widespread concern that the government
has gone too far this time, and for no reason."
Kem Sokha, is taken into custody on the morning of December 31.
Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), was arrested
and detained on December 31.
"While I am thankful for my release, my first thoughts go to those who remain
in jail or are in hiding [accused of] defamation," said Virak in a prepared
Kem Sokha, President of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) was arrested
on December 31 and Pa Nguon Teang, deputy director of the CCHR was arrested on January
4. Both have been detained in Prey Sar prison since their arrests.
The defamation charges against Sokha and Teang were allegedly based on the contents
of a handwritten banner seen at a rally marking International Human Rights Day on
December 10 at the Olympic Stadium. The banner reportedly accused Hun Sen of ceding
Cambodian land to Vietnam.
Statements issued by the World Bank, the US State Department, the United Nations
High Commissioner for Human Rights, the International Labour Organisation, the Alliance
for Freedom of Expression in Cambodia, the International Republican Institute and
the 36 local NGOs forming the Alliance for Freedom and Advocacy also expressed condemnation
of the government's action.
Amnesty International's Southeast Asia researcher, Brittis Edam, wrote, "The
government cannot lay the blame for this on the courts. It is manipulating the justice
system itself and in doing so is undermining the credibility and independence of
Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told Radio Free Asia that he questioned
the neutrality of the judiciary in this matter.
"If the law was going to be applied objectively, Hun Sen himelf would already
have been charged on many occasions," Adams was quoted as saying. "He has
made many statements over the years inciting people to violence. He has threatened
foreign embassies, he has threatened foreign governments, he has threatened opposition
members.... This is a question of the law being used as a tool against political
Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center, expresses relief as he leaves Prey Sar prison on January 11 with his wife, Prak Som Ean, and son, Prak Som Ean.
The president of the Independent Teachers' Association, Rong Chhun, and Mam Sonando,
owner of radio station Beehive FM 105, are being held in prison and arrest warrants
have been issued for others who allegedly criticized Hun Sen over the border issue.
Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) parliamentarian Cheam Channy was dismissed from the National
Assembly and sentenced to jail for seven years after being found guilty by a military
court of raising an illegal army.
Sam Rainsy, leader of the SRP, was sentenced in absentia to 18 months after being
found guilty of defamation against Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, President
of the National Assembly. Rainsy accused Ranariddh of taking a bribe to form the
current coalition government following a year-long political deadlock.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers, Ea Channa, representative
of the Students' Movement for Democracy, Men Nath, president of the Civil Servants
Association, Prince Sisowath Thomico, personal adviser to retired King Norodom Sihanouk,
Say Bory, a member of the Constitutional Council and also an adviser to Sihanouk
have all fled Cambodia fearing arrest.