PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A day after his release from prison on bail, a prominent Cambodian human rights activist said he is undeterred by the defamation lawsuit against him and remains determined to continue his work.
“For me, there is nothing that can hold me back,” Kem Sokha, director of the U.S.-funded Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said Wednesday at a news conference.
He is one of four government critics released on bail Tuesday from a Phnom Penh prison, where they had been held on criminal defamation charges filed by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Bowing to pressure from home and abroad, the Cambodian leader asked the court to release the men pending trial. The international community, including the United States, has condemned recent arrests of critics as part of a government attempt to crush dissent.
Hun Sen had sued the four men and several others for criminal defamation for allegedly accusing him of ceding Cambodian land to Vietnam when he signed a border demarcation pact with Hanoi’s leaders in October.
Kem Sokha, who spent 17 days in prison, maintained his innocence. Addressing about 100 supporters at his office, he urged them not to be intimidated by the government.
“Freedom is available in Cambodia but it is in the hands of those in power,” he said. “We have to keep on working to get that freedom and put it back in the hands of the people.”
He said he will push for the current criminal defamation code to be abolished so that it cannot be used against government opponents.
He has also said he wants more dialogue with the government to improve mutual understanding and convince it of civil liberties’ importance in developing the country.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in New York on Tuesday that he was “pleased” at the release of Kem Sokha and the three others radio journalist Mom Sonando, union leader Rong Chhun and social activist Pa Nguon Tieng, also from the human rights center.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Annan also expressed hope that Hun Sen “will ensure freedom of expression and respect by Cambodia for its human rights obligations and the rule of law.”
Om Yentieng, an adviser to Hun Sen, said Tuesday that the granting of bail did not mean the defamation charges will be dropped and that the four men will have to attend court when their trials start.
The penalty for criminal defamation ranges from eight days to a year in jail, and a fine of up to 10 million riel (US$2,440; euro2,020).
Lorne Crancer, president of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, said that he was relieved at the four men’s release, but that it “does not change … the fact that they were arrested for peacefully expressing their views.”
“Hun Sen should start by dropping the remaining charges against all the democracy activists he has targeted over the last year,” Crancer said in statement released Tuesday by the group, which is affiliated with the U.S. Republican Party and says it promotes democracy worldwide.