Khieu Kanharith Defends Activists’ Arrests

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.”


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