A Cambodian court yesterday refused bail to a third human-rights campaigner in less than a week, sending him to jail on defamation charges in an apparent continued crackdown on critics of the government.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered the acting head of the US-backed Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Pang Nguonteang, to face defamation charges laid by the government over banners allegedly displayed on International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.
Nguonteang was not permitted to speak to anyone as he left the court in a black police vehicle for his trip to Prey Sar prison, where he can be kept for up to six months before trial.
His boss, CCHR head Kem Sokha, has also been held there since his arrest on Dec. 31.
"The court signed and sent my defendant to Prey Sar," Nguonteang's lawyer Sorm Chan Dina told reporters outside, adding they were considering writing a letter to King Norodom Sihamoni over the matter.
string of arrests
Sokha and Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center, were both arrested on Dec. 31 in connection with slogans critical of the government which had apparently been scrawled on handwritten banners displayed during International Human Rights Day celebrations by their organizations on Dec. 10.
In October, radio journalist Mom Sonando and Rong Chhum, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, were arrested.
The two were charged with criminal defamation and incitement for public statements critical of a controversial border treaty with neighboring Vietnam.
At least five other government critics have fled into exile to avoid arrest since then.
Exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy was sentenced in absentia to 18 months jail on related charges last month.
within the law
Government critics say the arrests created a climate of fear designed to stifle free speech in the country. That has sparked international condemnation and drawn sharp criticism from human rights organizations, but the Cambodian government insisted it was acting within the law.
Under Cambodian law prisoners can be detained for up to six months before trial while their cases are investigated.
All face a minimum of one year imprisonment if convicted of defamation charges.
Police said three other men were detained along with Nguonteang, including a man believed to be a Thai national and a Cambodian-American employee of CCHR, but were released because the police did not have valid warrants for their arrests.
The orders for Nguonteang's arrest were issued by the Ministry of the Interior, police said.
Outside the court, rights campaigners including a representative from the International Republican Institute read public statements condemning the latest arrest and released a dove from a cake as a symbol of their demands for more freedom.
However the government showed no sign of weakening, and sources said yesterday that more arrests could be expected.