Cambodian Center for Human Rights Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang was sent to Prey Sar prison after being charged with defamation by Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday morning, officials said.
He joined CCHR President Kem Sokha and Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak as the third man to be detained there over a banner critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government, which was displayed on International Human Rights Day on Dec 10.
The charge against Pa Nguon Teang came a day after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour expressed “deep regret” over the government’s continued use of criminal defamation lawsuits against critical voices.
“This disturbing trend threatens to undo the progress made through painstaking efforts over the last decade to build an open and just society based on the rule of law [in Cambodia],” Arbour said in a statement.
The government, as a party to all the core international human rights treaties, is obliged to respect and ensure all human rights including the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, she added.
Lawyer Som Chandina, who represents Pa Nguon Teang and Kem Sokha, said the deputy director spent the night at the Interior Ministry after being escorted back to the capital from Stung Treng province, where he was arrested on Wednesday.
At the court, Pa Nguon Teang was questioned for about two hours about the banner by Investigating Judge Iv Kimsry before being charged, the lawyer said.
Kem Sokha and Yeng Virak were detained and charged with criminal defamation on Saturday.
Pa Nguon Teang told the judge that when the banner was put up at the CCHR booth the day before the rights day celebrations, the critical statements were not on it, Som Chandina said.
The booth was not guarded overnight, and when staff returned in the morning for the ceremony, they found the statements had been added, Pa Nguon Teang told the judge, according to his lawyer.
Som Chandina has suggested that the critical statements may have been added to frame the CCHR.
A bail request filed on Kem Sokha’s behalf was denied Thursday by Investigating Judge Sao Meach due to fears that the activist might flee, the lawyer said, adding that he plans to appeal.
Lawyer Hun Chundy, who represents Yeng Virak, said a bail request for the detained CLEC director has not yet been submitted.
According to a copy of the government’s lawsuit obtained Wednesday, the government is seeking about $2,500 in compensation from Kem Sokha, Yeng Virak and “associates,” as well as “as strict a punishment as the law allows.”
Government lawyer Suong Chanthan would not identify the associates.
Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana said that despite complaints and condemnations of the criminal defamation law—which can carry up to a year in jail—there is little his ministry can do. “They have to do what the law says,” he said. “For the time being, we don’t have any other laws. I cannot change the decision of the court.”
But Ang Vong Vathana defended the laying of criminal charges against the activists. “This is not a civil case because they accused the prime minister,” he said.
Minutes before police drove Pa Nguon Teang to prison, Alex Sutton, country director for the International Republican Institute, released more than a dozen small birds from a cage in front of the court.
“I call on everybody in this country. Not just the international folks, but everybody needs to be aware of what’s going on,” Sutton said. “There needs to be a sense of outrage and justice.”
The Sam Rainsy Party issued a statement on Thursday condemning Pa Nguon Teang’s arrest and calling on the countries that signed the Paris Peace Agreements to intervene.
France-based rights group Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders called on the public to write to Cambodian authorities, asking for the activists’ immediate release and to end “all acts of harassment” against rights workers.
CCHR spokesman Ou Virak said that despite the charges, the organization plans to hold more public forums, including one scheduled for today in Kandal province.
“The number of public forums is going to increase so we can continue the work of Kem Sokha,” he said. “When prominent human rights defenders get arrested, there are quite a few people who leave. But there are lots of others who are still here working.”