Two of Cambodia's most prominent human rights activists have been arrested and detained for defaming the Government. The U.S. Ambassador warned that the arrests further tarnished the country's veneer of democracy. Director of the Cambodian Centre of Human Rights Kem Sokha (55) and Yeng Virak, head of the Community Legal Education Centre, were charged over the weekend over allegedly offensive material displayed at a workshop on December 10 to mark international human rights day.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said banners on the CCHR booth at the event branded Prime Minister Hun Sen a ``communist'' and ``traitor who has sold away [Cambodian] land to Vietnam,'' referring to a border demarcation deal signed in October. ``We have already stated in the past that this [accusation] is very serious,'' AP quoted him as saying.
Mr. Kem Sokha was arrested after a three-hour standoff at his office while Mr. Yeng Virak was detained separately. A lawyer for Mr. Yeng Virak, Huon Chundy, said it was unfair to hold his client accountable for the criticism. ``Some people - we did not know who they were - penned those words on the banner, which was immediately removed after organisers spotted it,'' he said. ``There must be a misunderstanding, and the Government and court should review the case.''
Ou Virak, a CCHR advocacy officer, said he was convinced Mr. Hun Sen is trying to ``silence the Opposition by arresting his critics''. ``This is a major step,'' he said. ``It shows this country is walking backwards in democracy. Indeed that we no longer have a democracy.''
Their detention comes 10 days after Sam Rainsy, head of the main Opposition party, was convicted in absentia of defaming Mr. Hun Sen and the National Assembly Speaker. It brings to nine the number of government critics and rights activists who have either been jailed pending trial or have fled rather than face imprisonment in the last few months.
U.S. Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli described it as another step down the wrong path for Cambodia, adding: ``There is not much left to a real democracy.''
He said the Government was afraid of free speech. ``And when Governments are afraid, they make foolish decisions, and this is foolish and unfortunate.''
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004