Four men charged with defamation over criticism of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government were released on bail Tuesday afternoon, prompting more than 1,000 people to gather at the offices of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights in celebration.
The release of CCHR President Kem Sokha, CCHR Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang, Mam Sonando of Beehive Radio and Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association came several hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen met with a senior US official and discussed criminal defamation cases and human rights.
Om Yentieng, an adviser to Hun Sen, said shortly before their release that Hun Sen had wanted to present a gift to US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill and the US by encouraging the court to free them.
“Samdech thought this would be a gift for Mr Christopher Hill on the day of the embassy’s inauguration,” Om Yentieng told reporters outside Hun Sen’s residence near Independence Monument, adding that the decision to release them from Prey Sar prison was ultimately left to Phnom Penh Municipal Court officials.
Hill is the chief US envoy to the six-party negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear program. He arrived in Cambodia on Monday evening to help inaugurate the new US Embassy near Wat Phnom on Tuesday.
Om Yentieng said Hun Sen had decided to support calls for the release of the men on bail on his own initiative.
“Hun Sen-he understands the concerns, as a Cambodian with a heart. He will make a request in writing to the court asking for these people to be released on bail,” he said.
However, Om Yentieng, who is also head of the government’s human rights committee, added that the charges against the four had not been dropped.
“These people must come to the court for their hearings,” he said.
Speaking at the US Embassy shortly before the men’s release, Hill told reporters that he had had an in-depth discussion with Hun Sen, during which he had raised the issue of criminal defamation cases.
“It’s very important that people who are arrested for anti-defamation charges, that they get out of prison as a first step. Clearly…our interest would be to see that this judicial process [does] not go forward and that these people can be free to go about their lives,” he said.
Hill said that despite the court’s decision to release the men, he would like to see it “followed up by other steps so that Cambodia can address these issues and make progress.”
As word spread that the four would be released, supporters started gathering outside Prey Sar prison in the early afternoon.
At about 4:30 pm, the four men, flanked by family members, emerged from the jail as a crowd erupted in cheers and chants.
The men said little, though a bearded Kem Sokha pumped his arms in the air and waved to the cheering crowd.
At one point, supporters raised him on their shoulders, eliciting further cheering.
Nouv Lon, 70, a weeping Kem Sokha supporter, shook hands with him as he walked past and later said she had come to the prison after hearing of his release on the radio. “I am very happy that they released Kem Sokha and the other people,” she said.
The crowd walked several hundred meters to nearby Wat Ang Meitreiy, where the four prayed and were blessed by monks before being driven to CCHR’s offices on Street 242.
A large crowd had packed into the CCHR compound and the street by the time the four men appeared on a balcony at about 6 pm wearing flower garlands.
They thanked the international community for its backing but said they needed more support to ensure the charges are dropped.
“Releasing me from Prey Sar prison is only a temporary release,” Kem Sokha, who was arrested on Dec 31 over a banner displayed at International Human Rights Day, told the cheering crowd. “It is not finished yet. I need further support from the people,” he said, before adding, “They could detain us but they cannot detain our conscience.”
Pa Nguon Teang, who was arrested on Jan 4 over the same banner, which contained allegations relating to bloodshed and land being ceded to Vietnam, called the court’s decision a victory for the people.
“This is not my success,” he said. “It belongs to the people. And we continue to demand the freedom of expression.”
Mam Sonando, who like Rong Chhun was jailed in October on charges relating to allegations about territory being ceded to Vietnam, said his time in prison had not frightened him.
“Prison is not a place where democrats will be afraid of powerful men,” he said. “We have to unite to strengthen democracy.”
While he described Tuesday as a “great day,” Yeng Virak, the Community Legal Education director charged with defamation and released on bail on Jan 11, said more needs to be done.
“We wish that [the government] would drop all the charges,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul)