Phnom Penh — Another Cambodian rights activist was charged Thursday with defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen, as critics warned the country would become a pariah state if it continued to crush dissent.
The defamation suit against Pa Nguon Teang was the most recent in a flurry of cases that have been internationally condemned by rights groups and donor countries as a bid to silence political opposition in the impoverished kingdom.
The United States has voiced “strong” objections to the actions by Hun Sen’s administration, while both Human Rights Watch and the International Republican Institute, a US-based think tank, likened Cambodia to Myanmar, where the military-ruled government routinely silences its opponents.
Alexander Sutton, Cambodia’s country director for the institute, said Thursday that Cambodia is facing future isolation as it continued to jail critics.
“This is not just the step backward to democracy, it’s a leap and bound backward for democracy in the country,” he said.
“This is very serious problem and it reached the critical mass with the jailing of Kem Sokha, Yeng Virak and now Teang,” he said, referring to the weekend arrest of two other rights leaders, also on defamation charges
Pa Nguon Teang, acting director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, was arrested Wednesday near the border with Laos.
His arrest comes five days after the center’s director Kem Sokha was arrested on defamation charges in the capital Phnom Penh.
“The court has charged my client with defaming and insulting,” Pa Nguon Teang’s lawyer Som Chandyna told reporters at Phnom Penh Municipal Court where the activist was questioned for more than two hours Thursday morning.
He said Pa Nguon Teang was sent to Prey Sar prison pending trial. The charges against both him and Kem Sokha stem from a banner the center erected during Human Rights Day celebrations on December 10 that allegedly accused Hun Sen of being a communist who sold Cambodian territory to the Vietnamese.
Investigating judge Sao Meach Thursday denied bail for Kem Sokha, saying the suspect might flee the country before his trial.
“The investigation of Kem Sokha has not yet finished. In order to assure a good and full investigation, the court will not allow the suspect to be released on bail,” Sao Meach said.
Nearly a dozen people, including opposition leader Sam Rainsy, have been charged with or convicted of defamation in what rights groups say is a government bid to dismantle its critics through the courts.
The UN has weighed in on the issue as well, with the world body’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour saying the arrests threaten “to undo the progress made through painstaking efforts over the last decade to build an open and just society based on the rule of law”.
In response to the heavy condemnation both at home and abroad, the Cambodian government has repeatedly denied that is using the judiciary to enforce its agenda.