In an apparent about-face Tuesday, Prime Minister Hun Sen said he is working to drop charges against activists implicated in criminal defamation lawsuits that were filed in recent months following criticism of his handling of Cambodia’s territorial integrity.
The announcement came the day after four activists who were released from prison on bail last week wrote a conciliatory statement and letters to Hun Sen thanking him for helping secure their releases.
“All the letters written by those people are enough and understandable,” Hun Sen told reporters outside the Council of Ministers. “If there are similar letters, I will ask the court to cease its apprehensions and arrests,” he said.
Explaining that he preferred “compromise rather than confrontation,” the prime minister said he has asked lawyers to look into the matter and find a way to drop the charges against his critics.
“I can assure that everything has been eased down,” he said.
On Monday, Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha and CCHR Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang issued a statement thanking Hun Sen for acting as their bail guarantor with the court.
The pair stated that they had not written comments on a banner at a recent human rights rally that accused Hun Sen of selling land to Vietnam or leading a communist regime.
“Such opinions are not ours or CCHR’s,” the pair wrote in their statement. “We are very sorry such a thing happened, which is not our intention or CCHR’s.”
Kem Sokha also had a 30-minute telephone conversation with Hun Sen on Monday night in which the prime minister reportedly said he wanted an end to the defamation cases.
“[Hun Sen] said he wanted to compromise and he wanted to finish this case,” Kem Sokha said by telephone.
“He said he doesn’t think we are enemies and he supports my work,” he added.
Kem Sokha said the prime minister agreed to drop charges against all those who have been charged, with the exception of opposition leader Sam Rainsy, without any conditions.
Kem Sokha denied that the statement was an apology to Hun Sen.“We don’t apologize and they don’t ask for an exchange,” he said. “If I apologize, it is not right. There were no promises.”
Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun and Beehive Radio station owner Mam Sonando also sent letters to Hun Sen thanking him for helping get them out of prison.
“I am very sorry for the release of the statement regarding the country’s territorial integrity,” Rong Chhun wrote in his letter to Hun Sen.
“I, as a Cambodian citizen, would like to agree with the top institutions who are the representatives for the country and people,” Rong Chhun added.
Mam Sonando’s letter was similar. “I understand that the chapter of Khmer history concerning territorial integrity has been finished,” Mam Sonando wrote.
“The National Assembly, the Senate as well as His Majesty King Norodom Sihamoni has signed and ratified supplemental treaty already. As a Khmer citizen, I also have to agree with supreme institutions,” he wrote.
Rong Chhun denied that his letter was an apology.
“We made no apology,” he said. “I only thank the prime minister for getting me bail. In the letter, I only say I regret.”
He also denied that the letter to Hun Sen was a part of deal to have the charges dropped against him.
“We had no contract with the prime minister [stating] that we would have to do this and not do that,” Rong Chhun said. “We only agreed to end the case.”
Mam Sonando and Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak, who was also charged with criminal defamation and released on bail on Jan 11, could not be reached for comment.
Suong Chanthan, the government lawyer who filed the lawsuit that led to charges against Kem Sokha, Pa Nguon Teang and Yeng Virak, said he had received orders from the prime minister but said he had not yet contacted the court.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court officials could not be reached for comment.
Several observers called Hun Sen’s announcement a positive step toward reconciliation.
Alex Sutton, International Republican Institute resident country director, said that after the arrests, NGOs had three goals: getting the men out of jail, getting the charges dropped and changing the defamation law.
“At the end of the day, they have accomplished two out of three things,” he said before defending the statement and letters.
“I don’t think in any way are they compromising or backing down. From the moment they were released from prison they have not let up the pressure,” he added.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay also applauded the move, and while he warned that secret deals can come back to haunt those who make them, he had no worries that such a thing had happened. “Civil society people have to fulfill their duty by conforming to their principles and not doing things that will compromise their principles,” he said.
“I have no suspicion about these people,” he added. “It is a new type of dialogue of democracy in our society.”