The Cambodian government yesterday defended the arrest and detention of two human rights activists on criminal defamation charges for criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Critics, however, said the latest action shows the government is veering toward authoritarian rule.
Kem Sokha, director of the US-funded Cambodian Center of Human Rights, and Yeng Virak, head of the Community Legal Education Center, were arrested on Saturday. They are 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. 10.
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 of expression.
The Cambodian government has sued several people for their criticism of a border demarcation pact Hun Sen signed with Vietnam in October.
US 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 speech.
"And when governments are afraid, they make foolish decisions, and this is foolish and unfortunate," he told reporters on Saturday.
Police raided the office of the human rights center and arrested Kem Sokha after a standoff of several hours early on 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.
The arrest followed the Dec. 22 conviction of opposition leader Sam Rainsy for defaming Hun Sen and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, head of the National Assembly.
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 Cambodia.''
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.