Days after Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened political commentator Kim Sok with prison time for accusing the ruling party of murdering government critic Kem Ley, he was imprisoned on Friday over incitement and defamation charges.
“I’m not afraid so you all should not be afraid!” Mr. Sok shouted to more than 300 cheering supporters as he arrived at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to face questioning over the comments that drew Mr. Hun Sen’s ire last week.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia on February 12, the former university lecturer claimed that the ruling party had manipulated the opposition CNRP and said later that “they” killed Kem Ley, a staunch government critic who was gunned down in July.
Mr. Hun Sen filed a $500,000 lawsuit the next day, accusing Mr. Sok of incitement and calling on the analyst to be thrown in jail.
“Don’t run away,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Just be imprisoned for two years.”
Leaving Wat Chas early on Friday morning, Mr. Sok walked more than 5 km to the court alongside supporters, including dissident monk But Buntenh, briefly stopping outside the U.S. Embassy, where he was embraced by well-wishers.
After more than five hours of questioning by a deputy prosecutor and an investigating judge, the commentator was charged, swiftly put into a police car and taken to Prey Sar prison.
“The judge decided to provisionally detain charged person Kim Sok for public defamation and incitement to cause social disorder,” said Ly Sophana, a court spokesman.
The second charge carries a prison sentence of up to two years in prison.
Mr. Sok’s supporters were outraged by his prompt imprisonment.
Activist monk Luon Sovath said he believed the link between Mr. Hun Sen’s comments last Monday and the decision to summon Mr. Sok on the same charges later that day illustrated how the case was politically motivated.
“Because the prime minister spoke in the morning confirming he was suing Kim Sok for defamation and incitement to commit a criminal offense, the court was extra fast in issuing the summons in the evening,” he said. “Whatever the prime minister says, the court just follows.”
Mr. Sok is also facing a second lawsuit—this one for 10 million riel, or about $2,500, and also filed by Mr. Hun Sen—for remarks attempting to explain his initial accusation in which he said a CPP-controlled “network” arranged to have Kem Ley killed.
Among analysts, the jury was still out on Friday over the government’s decision to pursue legal action against Mr. Sok, who many say was simply voicing a theory that many already believe to be true. Despite widespread suspicions that the government was behind Kem Ley’s murder, however, no concrete evidence has been made public.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said he would have also taken legal action if Mr. Sok had made the same accusations against him without backing it up with evidence.
“If I remained silent it would imply that I agree with…what has been said,” Mr. Mong Hay said, adding that analysts “should speak the truth.”
Analyst Cham Bunthet, an adviser to the Grassroots Democracy Party, said that Mr. Sok’s words were reckless.
“What Kim Sok did, for me, I think it was a little too aggressive, too rude toward the government,” Mr. Bunthet said. “It’s good to show courage, but courage needs to be balanced with wisdom.”
That said, he also felt the CPP’s reaction was unnecessarily heavy-handed.
“The government, as the parents of the children, should educate children. They should give them ways to elaborate, to change their words, their behavior,” he said.
“I think the prime minister should ask Kim Sok to prove rather than just making this very immediate reaction,” he added. “I think it just promotes hatred and anger, not a solution, and I think it’s not good for both the government and the people. Maybe the tension will rise.”
But Buntenh, the monk who joined Mr. Sok during his day in court, said arguing that Mr. Sok did not have evidence to support his accusation missed one of his main points, which is that the government is actively suppressing clues that could reveal who was behind the murder.
Most crucially, he said, was surveillance footage of the gas station where Kem Ley was murdered.
“To prove that what Kim Sok said is not true, release the evidence,” the monk said, adding that the government had seized on a few words to silence another critic.
“It is not based on what he speaks, but political motivations,” he said. “If they let Kim Sok continue to talk, he will continue to talk about various issues related to the CPP. This is why they are taking him away.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan denied that the case was politically motivated, saying Mr. Sok’s words amounted to incitement.
“It’s not analysis,” he said. “It’s harassment, accusation and subversion. But let the judges do their own job.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom and Colin Meyn)