PHNOM PENH — The release on bail of four prominent Cambodian government critics was widely applauded Wednesday, but rights groups warned the move would be an empty gesture if defamation charges against them are not dropped.
They also said the arrests would likely temper any future push for more freedoms in Cambodia, where a small democracy movement has struggled under the sometimes harsh rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“People are scared, and for good reason. Some of these guys will continue to speak out, but others, particularly those with fewer international connections, will keep quiet,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
The four walked free Tuesday after a surprise move by the courts to grant them bail following weeks of international pressure on the government and a visit by a top US official.
Earlier in the day Hun Sen had asked that the four be released, calling it a “present” for visiting US Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who met with the prime minister.
Hours later rights leaders Kem Sokha and Pa Nguon Teang, both of the US-backed Cambodian Center for Human Rights, were freed pending their trials.
Journalist Mam Sonando and union boss Rong Chhun — who were jailed last year for their criticism of Cambodia’s border pact with Vietnam, a politically sensitive topic — were also released pending trial.
The US-based International Republican Institute, one of the most persistent critics of Hun Sen’s government, said it was relieved the men were freed.
“Their freedom … does not change however the fact that they were arrested for peacefully expressing their views,” said institute president Lorne Craner.
“The abuse of power by Hun Sen and his regime to charge them — and free them — in such a capricious fashion in the first place reminds us that democracy and human rights in Cambodia still has a long road to follow.”
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 18 non-governmental organisations, urged the courts to drop the defamation charges against the four and another rights leader, Yeng Virak, who was freed on bail last week.
“Such an action would be a further significant step toward ensuring the protection of freedom of expression, other human rights and future economic development in Cambodia,” the coalition said Wednesday in a statement.
The apparent rights crackdown, which has seen nearly a dozen people arrested or facing punishment, mostly for defamation, a criminal offense in Cambodia, has drawn international condemnation.
Rights groups and foreign governments say Cambodia is using the courts to attack its critics and threatens to go the way of Myanmar if it continues to crush dissent.
The Cambodian government routinely denies it puts pressure on the courts to arrest its critics.