The government’s reputation abroad may be damaged by the detention of two human rights activists in the short term, but only until the government’s side of the story comes out, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Tuesday.
Defending the detention of Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha and Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak, jailed on Saturday on defamation charges, Khieu Kanharith said observers and diplomats have “jumped the gun” in condemning the government’s actions.
He said the two men signed agreements promising no disturbance during the International Human Rights Day celebrations of Dec 10, and claimed they broke the agreements by displaying a banner critical of the government and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Khieu Kanharith said the banner, which included comments handwritten by members of the public, contained allegations relating to bloodshed, land being sold to Vietnam and claims that the government was communist.
“If you work for a human rights organization, can you [make accusations] of anything?” Khieu Kanharith said. “The government has to take action. It’s not a violation of the freedom of expression.”
Officials say the lawsuit has been filed on behalf of the government rather than Hun Sen.
Khieu Kanharith, who is also information minister, said he ordered Beehive 105 FM Radio station to stop broadcasting live reports from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Saturday to keep the situation from becoming violent and protect the station.
“If I had not, I would have received the order to shut down the radio station from someone else who doesn’t understand,” he said.
He added that he did not know whether more people would be charged.
Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Som Chandina, said he had applied for bail for his client on Saturday. The lawyer, who met with his client for an hour on Tuesday, said authorities are exaggerating the content of the statements on the banner.
“Somebody has prepared a trick,” Som Chandina said. “It is new, invented evidence.”
One of Yeng Virak’s lawyers, Hun Chundy, said he also met with his client at Prey Sar prison Tuesday and would be requesting bail.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy weighed in on the case in a television interview on Tuesday.
Speaking on the program Asia Today on the British Broadcasting Corp, he accused Vietnam and China of being behind a series of defamation lawsuits filed in the country within the last year.
“I think behind the Cambodian government, there is China and Vietnam,” said Sam Rainsy, who was sentenced in absentia to 18 months in prison last month for defaming Hun Sen and Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Sam Rainsy indicated that a controversial judicial system in Cambodia could serve China’s interests.
“China does not want the tribunal to prosecute the Khmer Rouge leaders to be set up because China doesn’t want to be shown a supporter of the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
He also appealed to international donors to “use their leverage to stop this totalitarian drift.”
An official at the Vietnamese Embassy who asked not to be named denied Sam Rainsy’s accusations.
“This is his personal point of view,” he said. “This is the internal affairs of Cambodia.”
The Chinese Embassy and members of the government’s Khmer Rouge tribunal taskforce could not be reached for comment.
Several NGOs and Canadian Ambassador Donica Pottie called for the men’s release.
“Canada is very concerned about the use of criminal defamation lawsuits to silence human rights defenders,” she said. “I hope Kem Sokha and Yeng Virak will be released as soon as possible and the charges dropped.”
Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director Brad Adams condemned the detentions, saying in an e-mail: “This could be a defining moment for Cambodia’s hard-won human rights movement. Cambodia’s international donors need to take a stand. Otherwise Cambodia will likely go the way of other authoritarian regimes in the region.”