Opposition journalist Dam Sith has been freed from jail pending trial for defamation after Prime Minister Hun Sen urged the courts to release the newspaper editor amid international outrage over his arrest.
Sith, the editor-in-chief of Moneaksekar Khmer, was arrested on June 8 and charged with "defamation" and "disinformation" over an April 18 article that quoted opposition leader Sam Rainsy as linking Foreign Minister Hor Namhong to the Khmer Rouge.
His release on June 15 came a day after Hun Sen wrote to Phnom Penh Municipal Court president Chev Keng urging that Sith be released on bail.
Sith's lawyer, Kong Sam On, told the Post on June 16 that his client still faced jail if convicted.
“It is just a temporary release,” he said. “My client still faces prison if the court finds him guilty.”
The court had ignored earlier appeals to free Sith from the Ministry of Information, rights groups, journalists’ associations and the Sam Rainsy Party, which is fielding the newspaperman as a parliamentary candidate in next month’s national elections.
Investigating Judge Chhay Kong, who handled the case, maintained his court’s independence, saying court officials did not bow to political pressure in deciding to free Sith.
“The release of Dam Sith is the will of the judge,” he said. “We did not have any pressure on us to release Dam Sith, and the court had the right to reject the requests.”
Pen Samithy, president of the Club of Cambodian Journalists, welcomed Sith’s release on bail and urged the foreign minister to drop his complaints against him.
“I would like to appeal to Hor Namhong to withdraw the case against Dam Sith,” Samithy told the Post.
“Any case related to journalists should use the Press Law, not others,” he added, joining widespread criticism of an UNTAC statute being used against journalists, rather than Cambodia’s 1995 Press Law, which does not carry a jail sentence for the relevant offenses.