Court Charges Activist, Sends Him to Prison

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.”

 

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