Phnom Penh Municipal Court officials will not drop criminal defamation charges against several activists and may re-arrest any who act “arrogantly,” Prime Minister Hun Sen warned on Monday.
But Hun Sen advised the public to keep calm, saying that he had suggested that the court slow down its investigation of the activists so that their cases are not resolved within the three-year statue of limitations period.
“The issues cannot be dropped or suspended,” the prime minister said during a speech to graduating students at the National Institute of Education. “So I suggested interrupting the penalty and slowing down the process.”
“If it could be silent for three years, the [court’s] jurisdiction will be over,” Hun Sen said, adding that he has told the court to “let it be.”
“I don’t want to win over anyone,” he added.
According to Article 30 of the Untac law, the statute of limitations for such misdemeanors as defamation is three years.
Investigating Judge Sao Meach said he had not heard the prime minister’s speech and would not comment on whether he would follow Hun Sen’s instructions and drag his investigations out.
“We will proceed according to the law,” Sao Meach said. “It is up to the results of the investigation.”
Several activists who the prime minister said last week would be cleared of all charges said their fates were now in the hands of the government.
Kem Sokha, Cambodian Center for Human Rights president, said that while he understands that the government cannot order the court to drop charges, “in previous experience, if the government wants to drop a case, then [the court] will.”
“If the government has the will to finish the case, it’s easy to do,” Kem Sokha said. “If they want to drop it, they will drop it. I’m not too worried because the key is in the prime minister’s hands.”
However, he reiterated that the CCHR will not stop its work despite Hun Sen’s warning not to act “arrogantly.”
“I cannot stay quiet. If I stay quiet, I might as well be in jail,” he said.
Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun also reiterated earlier statements that he would continue his work and was confident that the prime minister’s promise to drop the charges would be realized.
“I think everything is in Samdech Hun Sen’s hands,” he said. “Everything is up to him.”
Beehive Radio station owner Mam Sonando said he, too, was not worried, because he had done everything he could to absolve himself.
“When they want us in jail, we will be there,” he said. “If they want us out, we will be out. It is beyond my concern.”
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay welcomed Hun Sen’s speech, saying that the government appeared to have a new attitude toward dialogue.
“By giving these kinds of hints, we can look at some other ways” of getting the charges dropped, Son Chhay said.
“He is looking for the middle way,” he said.
But Hun Sen’s hope that the investigations would drag on for up to three years raised questions among observers as to whether the government was trying to keep his critics under control, especially during the 2007 commune and 2008 national elections.
“The elections are a big factor,” one diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “[Hun Sen] has a strategy for these guys which will have bearings on these elections.”
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that organizations like the CCHR and Beehive Radio are essential for educating voters during election campaigns.