Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak was released from Prey Sar prison on bail Wednesday, though officials said he would still face a criminal defamation charge in court.
The release came hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen responded to heavy criticism of the recent rash of arrests, saying that the banner that led to Yeng Virak’s detention had defamed the government and that those responsible for it could not be forgiven.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Prosecutor Ouk Savouth said Yeng Virak was released after 11 days in Prey Sar when Investigating Judge Sao Meach found he had no involvement in the offending banner, which was displayed at International Human Rights Day celebrations on Dec 10 and contained comments critical of Hun Sen and the government.
The allegations on the banner related to bloodshed and the selling of land to Vietnam.
“The investigating judge found that he has no connection with the banner,” Ouk Savouth said. He did not say why Yeng Virak was not cleared of defamation.
While no money was required to be pledged for the bail, Ouk Savouth said several people had guaranteed that Yeng Virak would not flee prosecution.
Ouk Savouth referred further questions to Sao Meach, who could not be contacted.
Yeng Virak was arrested on Dec 31, the same day as Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha, who remains in detention along with CCHR Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang, who was arrested over the banner on Jan 4.
Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, and Rong Chhun of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association are also being held at Prey Sar on defamation charges.
Yeng Virak’s family was admitted into the prison around 4 pm, and he emerged about an hour later. He told reporters he was happy to be free before being ushered into a waiting vehicle and driven home.
Yeng Virak said later that evening that he was happy to have been released.
“But as you know, the charges have not been dropped,” he said. “I also have concern for those others who have been detained.” He added that he had had little interaction with the other four men, who were in separate cells.
Yeng Virak said he will continue his work with more vigor than before, and described his detention as “a great experience for me.”
“It makes me feel stronger for working on human rights and democracy in Cambodia,” he said.
His wife, Prak Som Ean, was overjoyed. “I’m very happy today and my family is very happy,” she said.
CCHR spokesman Ou Virak applauded the court’s decision, but said the move was a limited victory. “He still faces charges and there are other activists who are still in jail,” he said. “It’s more important that the government drop all the charges.”
CLEC issued a statement following Yeng Virak’s release expressing concern over the continued detentions of the four other men and the court’s decision not to drop any charges.
“CLEC respectfully requests the government and its members to withdraw all complaints of criminal defamation made against civil society leaders in 2005,” the statement read.
Speaking at an economic conference at the Cambodiana Hotel, Hun Sen said the banner was particularly serious because it attacked the government rather than just him.
“Hun Sen [is] only an individual…the banner related to the regime,” he said, adding that cursing the government, which includes the King, the Senate and the National Assembly, “is beyond the limit.”
“I am a victim so I let the court consider the case,” he said, adding that it was the court that decided to arrest the men and charge them.
“The government has never used any power to arrest or detain anyone,” he said.
Hun Sen also urged the international community to think about the entire nation rather than a few people. “Peace, political and social stability must be secured….We should not be careless about political stability and think about another issue,” he said.
Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was presiding over a graduation ceremony at Pannasastra University of Cambodia, declined comment on the arrests, though he criticized the US for involving itself in Cambodia’s domestic affairs, and had tough words for Kem Sokha for his decision to leave Funcinpec in 2002.
“He did not follow because he has American support,” Prince Ranariddh said. “[Opposition leader] Sam Rainsy depends on the Americans and Kem Sokha does also.”
He added that the US wants Cambodia to respect the law, “but when those they support, such as Sam Rainsy, stampede on the law, they say he is right.”
The US Embassy declined comment.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)