Germany’s ambassador to Cambodia warned on Monday that the Saturday detentions of Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center, could damage Cambodia’s economy as well as its political reputation.
Pius Fischer said that two pillars of Cambodia’s economy—tourism and garments—rely on international support and Cambodia’s image abroad, and may be affected by the detention of the two men, who have been charged with defamation.
“This is a very unfortunate incident and it has to be seen in a whole context, which is not in favor of Cambodia and Cambodia’s reputation,” he said. “Apart from the political damage, it could have economic consequences.”
Kem Sokha and Yeng Virak were brought to Phnom Penh Municipal Court and charged with defamation on Saturday before being detained at Prey Sar prison.
The charges stem from a banner displayed at the International Human Rights Day celebration on Dec 10, which included comments handwritten by members of the public that were allegedly critical of the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“This [ceremony] was to commemorate, celebrate and raise awareness of human rights,” Fischer said. “It’s unfortunate the commemoration of this day has led to a serious violation of freedom of expression.”
Fischer said Kem Sokha and Yeng Virak should not be held responsible for the public’s opinions and said settling political disputes with criminal defamation lawsuits was inappropriate.
He described Kem Sokha as a “real asset to political life in Cambodia” who has established himself as a human rights defender above party politics.
But Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak defended the government’s actions, adding that the banner’s claims were “far from reality.”
Chiv Keng, director of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, has said the banner accused the government of being treasonous, being communist and selling land to Vietnam.
“It was the responsibility of Kem Sokha and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. We, the government, also respect the law. But they acted beyond their [rights],” Khieu Sopheak said.
He added that the Interior Ministry does not have the banner, but had photographs and witnesses for use in court. “We have the full evidence,” he said.
Lawyers for the two men were denied access to their clients by prison officials on Monday, but Kem Sokha’s wife, Te Chanmono, said she was able to meet her husband for about half an hour.
The activist is sharing a cell with four alleged human traffickers, she said, adding she was able to deliver a mosquito net, mat, clothing and pillows.
“He is worried about human rights in Cambodia, which are being repressed,” Te Chanmono said later in the day. “He told his staff to keep working as hard as before for human rights for our country.” She said she has appealed to several countries for help.
Deputy municipal court prosecutor Sok Kalyan said future arrests were not out of the question. “Now it is in the investigating process by the investigating judge,” he said. “So if he finds other people were involved, the judge would propose to us to charge more. But until now, there is no proposal yet.”
Khieu Sopheak said no new arrest warrant has been issued.
CCHR spokesman Ou Virak said that despite the arrests, two CCHR public forums—one on Wednesday in Siem Reap province and the other in Kandal province on Friday—will go ahead as planned. “Lots of [CCHR staff] are very sad, but lots of them are still strong and will continue the work of Mr Kem Sokha and do as much, if not more,” he said.
Ou Virak said that given Kem Sokha’s national prominence, it will be important for the international community to generate a strong response to buoy the morale of local NGOs working on the same issues and ensure that the government does not take such action again.
“Kem Sokha is the most popular human rights activist and no one else would get a stronger response from the international community,” he said. “You can see the level of fear [in the NGO community]. They can sense what’s at stake.”
Noranarith Anandayath, chief of cabinet for Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Prince Ranariddh, said he felt the government was taking the “appropriate steps” in charging the two men.
“This is only a small case of individuals,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on investors. It has nothing to do with political stability.”