On Mam Sonando’s desk Wednesday, a small Cambodian flag stood next to an American flag; on the office walls were pictures of US President George W Bush, and a bald eagle carved from wood was perched on a large speaker.
Wednesday was the Beehive 105 FM radio station owner’s first day back at work after spending 98 days of pre-trial detention at Prey Sar prison, for allegedly defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen by broadcasting an interview in which the premier was criticized for his handling of the border treaty with Vietnam.
“If there was another chance to do it again, I would still do the interview,” Mam Sonando said. “The government wanted to hide information on the border issue. The government never wants to reveal anything.”
On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered the release of Mam Sonando, Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha, CCHR Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang and Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun on bail. All had been charged with defamation following criticism of the government or of Hun Sen, and their release has prompted positive responses from various parties, including UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
“The Secretary-General was pleased to learn of the release of the four human rights activists who were being jailed in Cambodia for defamation,” the UN said in a statement. “The Secretary-General further expresses the hope that Prime Minister Hun Sen will ensure freedom of expression and respect by Cambodia for its human rights obligations and the rule of law.”
Observers had expressed concern that even if the men were released, their detentions would severely impact Cambodia’s freedom of expression and democracy.
But in interviews Wednesday, several of those who had been detained said they would continue working for human rights and democracy.
Mam Sonando described the rash of recent criminal defamation lawsuits as a “test” to see how much power high-ranking officials had and whether they could stand up to US pressure.
When they arrested Kem Sokha on Dec 31, however, the test went too far, Mam Sonando argued, and authorities were forced to backpedal.
“The release is not what the government wanted,” he said. “My release came because Kem Sokha was released.”
He said he was not worried about his pending trial, adding that he was ready to pick up where he left off, including covering politics on his radio station. “I will go back to what I have done in the past,” he said. “Through my struggle and twice being arrested, we are moving forwards, not backwards.”
Government officials have described the detainees’ release as a gift from Prime Minister Hun Sen to the US and to US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Christopher Hill, who met Hun Sen hours before the men were released.
Kem Sokha, who was charged with defamation over a controversial banner displayed at the International Human Rights Day celebration on Dec 10, dismissed the idea that his release was a gift. “Freedom is something that belongs to everyone, it is not a gift,” he told a crowd of supporters outside CCHR’s offices.
He later told reporters that while he will continue working for democracy and human rights, he will try to open more of a dialogue with the government.
“We will try to explain to the government that we aren’t here to topple their power…but to benefit the country,” he said. “I will have more dialogue with the government, but I don’t know if the government will open the door.”
But Rong Chhun said there would be no reconciliation until all charges, including those against opposition leader Sam Rainsy and opposition party member Cheam Channy, were dropped.
Speaking in a gravelly voice and coughing intermittently, Rong Chhun said his health had suffered greatly during his 96 days in prison. One of his eyes was blurry, he said, and he worried he had contracted tuberculosis.
Rong Chhun was arrested in October after signing a statement with three other men containing allegations relating to land being ceded to Vietnam.
“When we thought something was not for the benefit of the country, we had to make that statement,” Rong Chhun said. “I don’t feel miserable for doing that. If public figures cannot tolerate criticism, they should step down.”
Rong Chhun linked the release to government fears about losing foreign aid, tourism dollars and investment. “The word ‘gift’ is just a diplomatic word,” he said. “The government was scared.”
None of the three said they knew what had happened when Hill met Hun Sen, but they added that Hill told them at a dinner at the US Embassy later in the evening to continue working as they had and that their situation would be monitored.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith dismissed speculation that the meeting, along with US and international pressure, was responsible for bail being granted.
“The ones who say that the government is responding to the US and international community [have] their own political agenda,” he said. [Hill] “didn’t pressure anyone.”
Khieu Kanharith reiterated that the government had simply filed a lawsuit against the men who were detained and was not responsible for any detentions. “We never asked the court to arrest them,” he said.
Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh attacked the US for its alleged involvement in the men’s cases, though he said he believed the bail requests had been approved without external pressure.
“I don’t accept the question that the release was made because of any pressure from the outside,” he told reporters at the Phnom Penh International Airport after returning from Indonesia.
“All those who broke Cambodian laws and insulted someone, the Americans are behind them,” he said. On Dec 22, the municipal court sentenced Sam Rainsy in absentia to 18 months in prison, after ruling that he had defamed both Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh.
“America never cares about the victims of defamation,” the prince said.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)