Critics, however, said the latest action shows the government is
veering toward authoritarian rule.
Kem Sokha, director of the U.S.-funded Cambodian Center of Human
Rights, and Yeng Virak, head of the Community Legal Education Center,
were arrested Saturday. They were being held in prison pending trial on
criminal defamation charges.
Khieu Kanharith, the government spokesman and information minister,
said the government has sued the two men over a critical banner they
displayed during a gathering on International Human Rights Day on Dec.
He said the banner labeled Hun Sen as a "communist" and a "traitor who
has sold away (Cambodian) land to Vietnam."
"We have already stated in the past that this (accusation) is very
serious," he said, denying the government is cracking down on freedom
The Cambodian government has sued several people for their criticism of
a border demarcation pact Hun Sen signed with Vietnam in October.
U.S. Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli, among several foreigners who gathered
outside the center to observe Kem Sokha's arrest, described it as
"another step down the wrong path" for Cambodia, adding, "there is not
much left to a real democracy."
He said the action showed that the government was afraid of free
"And when governments are afraid, they make foolish decisions, and this
is foolish and unfortunate," he told reporters Saturday.
Police raided the office of the human rights center and arrested Kem
Sokha after a standoff of several hours early Saturday. Later that day,
they arrested Yeng Virak.
Both men have been charged with defamation and slander stemming from
the banner. Their respective organizations were among several civic
groups that organized the Dec. 10 event, according to Som Chandyna, the
lawyer for Kem Sokha.
The lawyer said Kem Sokha was being wrongly held responsible for the
criticism as he was outside Cambodia on the day of the gathering in the
capital Phnom Penh.
Huon Chundy, a lawyer for Yeng Virak, said his client has been unfairly
held accountable for the critical message on the banner.
"Some people - we did not know who they were - penned those words on
the banner, which was immediately removed (from display) after
organizers spotted it," he said. "There must be a misunderstanding, and
the government and court should review the case."
The arrest followed the Dec. 22 conviction of opposition leader Sam
Rainsy for defaming Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, head of the
Sam Rainsy is currently living in exile in France.
His party, which bears his name, Saturday called on the international
community "to take practical measures to prevent dictatorship...in
The latest event "has shown that freedom of expression is now finished"
as "the current government is moving toward the cruelest authoritarian
regime," a party statement said.
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