Efforts to pressure authorities to release four men detained at Prey Sar prison on defamation charges continued over the weekend, with recently released Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak playing a dominant role.
Yeng Virak and more than 100 union members, NGO workers and members of the public released hundreds of balloons and birds outside Prey Sar prison on Saturday morning.
Then at a Cambodian Center for Human Rights public forum at the organization’s Phnom Penh offices on Sunday, he said he would continue working to support democracy and human rights, calling his detention an injustice.
“I was illegally detained for 11 days,” he told about 300 forum participants. “I have done nothing wrong…. I will continue to work in order to have the others released and all charges dropped.”
Yeng Virak, who was arrested along with CCHR President Kem Sokha on Dec 31, was released on bail on Wednesday. He still faces a charge of defamation over a banner critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the government that appeared at celebrations for International Human Rights Day on Dec 10.
Kem Sokha and CCHR Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang remain at Prey Sar over the banner, which contained allegations relating to bloodshed and land being ceded to Vietnam.
Mam Sonando, Beehive 105 FM Radio station owner, and Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun are also detained there on defamation charges relating to allegations concerning the Vietnamese border.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak reiterated on Sunday earlier government statements that any decision to release or drop charges against the men rests with the courts. He took issue with the gathering outside the prison, saying participants “use the freedom of expression and democracy beyond their responsibility.”
“This is in front of a prison,” he said. “This activity encourages those criminals in the prison. They can do it at the pagoda.”
He added that the government’s decision to let the ceremony take place shows that many people in Cambodia enjoy the right of freedom of expression and democracy.
Chhorn Sokha, deputy president of the Coalition of Cambodia Apparel Union, said that protesting against the arrests was important for economic reasons.
“We are afraid that [garment] buyers will stop buying from Cambodia due to the arrests,” she said, adding that she attended both the forum and the prison protest.
“Buyers have decided to come to Cambodia because they believed the government respects human rights,” Chhorn Sokha added. “If the government doesn’t protect human rights, they will turn to China where employment is cheap.”
While criticism of the four men’s detentions continued, it emerged Thursday that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has condemned the detention and imprisonment of opposition party member Cheam Channy, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in August for forming a so-called illegal armed force.
In a declaration dated Nov 25 and sent to the government, the UN body condemned his detention, calling it “arbitrary” and a violation of international law.
“It is alleged that the charges against Mr Cheam, as well as his arrest and continued detention, constitute a politically motivated attempt to silence a member of the opposition party,” stated the declaration, which was obtained Thursday.
London-based rights group Amnesty International considers Cheam Channy a prisoner of conscience, along with Kem Sokha, Pa Nguon Teang, Mam Sonando and Rong Chhun.
Henrick Stenman, deputy director of the UN Center for Human Rights in Phnom Penh, said the UN Working Group’s opinion has been passed on to the government and that the government has been asked to remedy the situation.
Stenman said the ideal solution would be Cheam Channy’s unconditional release, adding: “The ball is in the government’s court.”
Contacted Sunday, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith called the UN decision “a politically biased statement.”
On Thursday he said the UN body’s criticism of Cheam Channy’s case was unfair. “[UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan must find the person who made the statement,” he said. “The government never detained anybody,” he said, adding that this was the court’s decision.
Military Court Director Ney Thol declined to comment on the declaration, saying Cheam Channy’s sentencing “is already effective.”
(Reporting by Yun Samean, Whitney Kvasager and Lee Berthiaume)