THE second Khmer journalist to be jailed in as many months was freed by Royal pardon
after a week in Phnom Penh's notorious T3 prison.
Hen Vipheak, former editor of New Liberty News, was detained Aug 23 after the Supreme
Court upheld his one-year sentence for disinformation. He spent seven days inside
- the same amount of time as Chan Rattana, former editor of Voice of the Khmer Youth,
spent there after being jailed in July.
Two days after the court decision condemning Vipheak, King Norodom Sihanouk sent
a letter to the two Prime Ministers asking them to agree for him to grant a pardon.
In his letter, he asked the Prime Ministers' forgiveness "for the good reputation
at national and international levels of our young liberal democracy."
On Aug 27, the Prime Ministers agreed to the King's request. Vipheak's friends and
defenders tried to get the paperwork done as soon as possible, but it was not until
three days later that all the signatures were gathered from the Council of Ministers,
Ministry of Justice and the Royal Palace.
As he left the jail Aug 30, Hen Vipheak said he had been detained in cell C, an area
for hard-case criminals.
"During the days in jail, my life seemed to no longer be valuable. I lost my
dignity. I was only a conscientious objecter and they took me into the serious murderers'
Hen Vipheak said his arrival at the jail was no surprise for his cellmates.
"All the prisoners knew that I was coming. They had been told by the chief of
the guards, and when he was there in July, Chan Rattana also told them that another
journalist would come."
Vipheak, though he acknowledged he was lucky to be permitted to meet visitors twice
a day, complained about the jail conditions.
"Even if prisoners have been sentenced, they must have the right to live in
decent conditions and should be treated as human beings," he said.
The jailing of Hen Vipheak was linked to an article he wrote in Feb 1995 headlined
"Country of Thieves", which railed against corruption and described the
Prime Ministers as "leaders of the thieves".
Vipheak said he expressed his opinion in the article, and was protected by his Constitutional
But, the Supreme Court disagreed with his defence and upheld a one-year jail term
and a fine of five million riels ($2,000) imposed by the Appeal Court on charges
However, the Supreme Court overturned an Appeal Court judgement which ordered the
closure of New Liberty News..
When Vipheak's story was published, the new press law was not yet adopted and the
Municipal and Appeal courts based their decisions on the Untac press law, which permits
the jailing of journalists.
Pin Samkhon, co-president of the Khmer Journalist's Association (KJA), said the Supreme
Court had misinterpreted the press law.
Hen Vipeak's defender said she argued in court that article 21 of the new press law
nullifies all previous laws concerning the press. The court, however, did not clearly
address this argument.
"All the arguments raised during the adoption of the press law have been pointless
if the Supreme Court is able to jail people by using another law," said an international
human rights observer.
"The Supreme Court said the new press law did not repeal the Untac law but only
repealed the old [State of Cambodia] press law. The judges rejected the argument
of the defenders without giving an explanation," he said.
According to the rights worker, the decision to use the Untac law does not conform
with ideas agreed on during the debate as the press law was being drafted.
"According to the debate [at the National Assembly], the jail penalty was not
provided. The law says journalists can only be sentenced according to criminal law
in cases of murder, or any other case not linked with their activities as journalists,"
"Now with the decision of the Supreme court, it is wide-open for local level
courts to follow the same argument," said the observer.