Official Defends Imprisonment of Activists to Visiting US Envoy

A secretary of state at the Foreign Affairs Ministry on Tuesday defended the government’s widely criticized imprisonment of 11 activists and an opposition official during a closed-door meeting with a visiting U.S. diplomat.

Daniel Russel, an assistant secretary of state at the U.S. government’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visited Cambodia on Tuesday and met with Foreign Affairs Ministry Secretary of State Ouch Borith.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting at the ministry in Phnom Penh, Mr. Borith said he told Mr. Russel that the media had communicated a biased representation of the November arrests of 11 activists.

“He only knows about this issue through the media,” Mr. Borith said. “The media reported that they were arrested after protesting over land issues and for expressing themselves freely…. This is not a good reputation for Cambodia.”

Seven of the activists were arrested after they placed a bed frame in the road in front of Phnom Penh City Hall to protest flooding of their Boeng Kak neighborhood. The other four were arrested the next day while protesting outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against the detention of the first seven.

All 11 were summarily tried and convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. On Monday, the Appeal Court upheld the convictions, but reduced the sentences for nine of the activists.

Mr. Borith told reporters that police were justified in arresting the activists because they had been affecting public order.

“Cambodia was enforcing the law because those people were causing traffic problems, affecting other people’s rights and affecting…social public order,” he said.

Mr. Borith also defended the imprisonment of CNRP official Meach Sovannara, who was also arrested in November over his role in a violent clash that erupted during a protest on July 15 that left a number of district security guards with injuries.

“I don’t understand,” Mr. Borith said of the criticism surrounding Mr. Sovannara’s arrest. “We had precise evidence to arrest him. You saw what happened to our security guards…. Is that right?”

In a speech at an event organized by the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace on Tuesday, a transcript of which was posted to the U.S. State Department’s website, Mr. Russel did not directly address the wave of arrests but said that Cambodians wanted an impartial judicial system.

“They want the government to do more to clamp down on corruption and increase respect for human rights,” he said.

“We are hopeful that Cambodia’s leaders will work together to boost efforts in these areas.”

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