Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Sunday that the five activists freed on bail last week would be prosecuted and face prison terms for continuing to criticize the government following their release from Prey Sar prison.
The five men—Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha, CCHR Deputy Director Pa Ngoun Teang, Beehive radio station owner Mam Sonando, Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun and Community Legal Education Center Executive Director Yeng Virak—cannot avoid standing trial for criminal defamation, the prime minister said.
“The court’s process in charging must continue,” Hun Sen said, speaking in Kandal province after casting his vote in Sunday’s Senate elections.
“After the prosecution, I will consider if they behaved. I have the ability to ask for a pardon. But with their few days’ behavior, I think there is no pardon,” Hun Sen said.
“If the court sentences, for example, nine months, the same as the Sam Rainsy Party’s leader, so they must serve two thirds in prison,” he added.
In his remarks, the prime minister also downplayed the part US pressure had played in the activists’ release, which followed a meeting between Hun Sen and US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill.
“We have done the humanitarian way. The US didn’t raise this issue with me,” Hun Sen said.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said the US continued to applaud the activists’ release.
“We had a good conversation with the prime minister when Secretary Hill was in Cambodia, and we see no reason to doubt the prime minister’s words during that discussion,” Daigle said.
But Mam Sonando expressed frustration with the premier’s comments. “He cannot release us and ask us to shut up. I cannot please him,” he said.
Rong Chhun said he hoped his continued participation in public dialogue would not be misconstrued as malicious.
“Democrats criticize the government—[it] is a constructive criticism that is guaranteed by the constitution,” he said.
One foreign diplomat, informed of Hun Sen’s speech, called it “very bad news” and a reversal from last week.
“That would not be responsive political dialogue,” the diplomat said. “It would be threatening critics as has happened in the past. It would also not be good news for the independence of the judiciary.”