The editor-in-chief of the SRP-affiliated Moneaksekar Khmer newspaper was jailed ahead of trial by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sunday on charges of “defamation,” “insult” and “disinformation,” officials said.
The arrest of Dam Sith stems from an article published April 18 that contained quotes from opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who alleged that the ministers of Foreign Affairs and Finance had links to the Khmer Rouge.
Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong, who has vigorously denied any such links, responded by filing lawsuits against Sam Rainsy and Dam Sith, who was questioned by the municipal court May 29.
According to defense attorney Choung Choungy, Dam Sith was arrested by plain-clothes military police officers at about noon Sunday while taking his vehicle to a car wash. He was taken to a closed-door municipal court session at 3 pm and sent to Prey Sar prison at about 5:30 pm, he said.
The municipal court is typically closed Sundays.
“It is not defamation or disinformation. Dam Sith published what Sam Rainsy said,” Choung Choungy said later by telephone.
He added that Investigating Judge Chhay Kong had signed off on the pre-trial detention order of his client, which stated that Dam Sith was being held to keep him from tainting evidence.
Choung Choungy said he will ask the court to release Dam Sith on bail today. Chhay Kong refused to elaborate on the charges or the detention.
“The court is secret,” he said.
In addition to being a journalist, Dam Sith is the No 6 SRP lawmaker candidate for Phnom Penh in the upcoming national election and a member of the party’s board of directors.
Several SRP lawmakers were among those waiting to hear news of Dam Sith’s fate outside the court Sunday afternoon.
SRP President Sam Rainsy condemned the arrest, saying it had nothing to do with the publication of his allegations and was “purely politics.”
“This is an excuse. The government should have arrested me first,” Sam Rainsy said. “The ruling party is using the court system to pressure political parties,” he said. “The election will be biased and imbalanced.”
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the court order to detain Dam Sith was prompted by a personal issue between Hor Namhong and Dam Sith.
“It is not related to the government,” he said.
Khieu Kanharith added, however, that he was unclear why Dam Sith had been arrested because defamation and disinformation were not sufficient charges to merit detention.
“The Ministry of Information will request the court to release [Dam Sith] on bail,” he added.
Journalism and human rights organizations expressed concerns over Sunday’s arrest.
“The Club of Cambodian Journalists is concerned about the arrest of Dam Sith,” the CCJ said in a statement issued Sunday evening.
“The CCJ thinks lawsuits should not be filed against newspapers when the newspaper quotes lawmakers, senators or politicians,” the club said.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said the timing of the arrest, and the closed-door status of the court hearing, will “send a very negative message to the voters that opposition voices are not welcome.”
“Now the voters will be afraid to come out and campaign, to vote in the election, and it will not be free for this election,” she said.
Mar Sophal, head of the monitoring unit at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the arrest of the newspaper editor would hurt the election environment.
“The government should not use the arrest as a tool,” he said. “It can instill fear among the public and the voter,” he said.