Mam Sonando, director of the independent Beehive (Sombok Khmum) radio station, was arrested on 11 October 2005, questioned at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and detained at Prey Sar prison. Mr Sonando has been charged with criminal defamation for his September 20 interview with Mr Sean Pengse, President of the Paris-based Cambodian Border Committee. Mr Pengse, who also faces charges, was critical of a new border agreement between Cambodia and Vietnam. Mam Sonando faces a year in prison if convicted.
The next day, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated during a press conference that he would prosecute anyone who criticised his stance on the border issue, threats that were reiterated in a speech broadcast on national television on October 17.
On October 15, Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, was arrested and detained in Prey Sar prison. Mr Chhun is a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC), an NGO coalition that had issued a statement questioning the border agreement a few days earlier. He was charged with defamation and incitement, and faces up to six years in prison.
Similar charges have also been brought against CWC leaders Chea Mony, President of the Free Trade Union Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia; Ea Channa, from the Student Movement for Democracy; and Men Nath, President of the Civil Servants Association.
“Criminal law is not appropriate for regulating libel or defamation and criminal defamation is not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression”, said Sidiki Kaba, President of FIDH. “Furthermore, the Cambodian authorities have yet to explain how the Cambodia Watchdog Council’s statement constitutes an incitement to commit crime. This new crackdown is a further step of the Cambodian government to stifle dissent and to silence peaceful criticism of its policies”, he added.
FIDH, ADHOC and LICADHO recall that two members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party were convicted in August of trying to overthrow the government, after a military court trial undermined by very serious procedural irregularities. Parliamentarian Cheam Channy is currently serving a seven year prison sentence while his deputy Khom Piseth was sentenced in absentia to five years.
The current crackdown violates the Constitution of Cambodia, whose article 41 enshrines the right to disseminate and receive information, and freedoms of opinion and expression. It also violates articles 19 (freedom of expression) and 25 (right to participate in public affairs) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been ratified by Cambodia.
Freedom to debate public affairs, to criticise and oppose, to publish political material and to advertise political ideas are the basis of any sound democracy. FIDH, ADHOC and LICADHO consequently urge the Cambodian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Mam Sonando, Rong Chhun and Cheam Channy, and to drop the criminal charges aimed at silencing people who merely exerted their right to freedom of expression.