Amnesty International has called for the release of Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha, CCHR Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang and Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak, as condemnations of their detention continues to mount.
In a statement received Friday, the London-based rights group said the right to freedom of expression is being fundamentally undermined, and called on the government to end its manipulation of the courts.
“The government cannot lay the blame for this on the courts. It is manipulating the justice system itself,” Amnesty said.
The three rights workers have been charged with defamation over a banner that appeared at International Human Rights Day on Dec 10 that criticized the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen. Kem Sokha and Yeng Virak were detained on Dec 31, while Pa Nguon Teang was arrested on Wednesday.
“It is a bitter irony that these individuals were arrested in connection with a human rights rally,” said Brittis Edman, South East Asia researcher for Amnesty.
“The situation is deteriorating sharply and there is a real risk that other activists will be arrested on similarly politically motivated charges,” she added.
On Sunday night, Cambodian Television Network will broadcast the offending banner on air and give a defense of the case, said CTN producer Chum Kosal, who is also an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The objective is to explain to our people who don’t understand yet,” he said. “The international community just accuses the government of violating the law, cracking down on democracy and [implementing] dictatorship.”
When the banner is shown, it will prove that the court has been acting lawfully, he said. “There is a right to expression but not in a way that is anarchic,” he said.
He added that the government is targeting individuals rather than the CCHR, and that the current arrests do not amount to a crackdown on democracy.
The program will be recorded Saturday, broadcast at 10pm Sunday and last about 30 minutes, he said.
Yash Ghai, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Human Rights in Cambodia, said the arrests are part of an unconstitutional campaign launched by Hun Sen to stifle free speech, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “It has all the hallmarks of the beginning of a totalitarian regime,” he said. “I don’t think I’m being alarmist, I have pondered deeply before I make statements like these, but it does seem to me that the international community has a primary responsibility to stand up and put pressure on the government and reverse its policy,” he said.
Kem Sokha’s daughter Monovithya Kem has called for a campaign to free her father, according to an e-mail to her father’s supporters obtained Friday.
In the e-mail, she called for a weekend of prayer for democracy in Cambodia from Jan 13 to Jan 15, and called for a candle-lit vigil outside the US White House on Jan 13.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the government cannot accept the accusations that appeared on the banners.
“The government just sues but the arrest and the detentions are the matter of the court,” he said. “We don’t sue about human rights,” he added. “Why do human rights NGOs accuse like this?”
He added that the accusations on the banner concerned allegations relating to bloodshed, and selling land to Vietnam.
The International Labor Organization also said it was deeply disturbed by the arrests of the three men. “These arrests are alarmingly reminiscent of the arrest in October 2005 of Mr Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, who deplorably remains in detention,” the ILO said in a statement.
“The ILO trusts that the Government will take all necessary steps to ensure that freedom of association and expression may be exercised freely and without fear.”
At a CCHR-sponsored public forum in Kandal province on Friday, US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said it is not appropriate for civil servants to sue members of the public. “Public officials are public servants. Therefore, the prime minister is your servant,” he said. “Servants do not sue their masters.”
After Mussomeli left, Funcinpec lawmaker Khieu San defended the court.
“This is a constitutional monarchy so it is different,” he said. “What the court does is right.”