01/05/2006, 00.00
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Government critics arrested and jailed

According to Human Rights Watch, Prime Minister Hun Sen is "following the Burmese model": throwing his critics in jail. In just a few days, three important human rights activists have been arrested, eliciting strong international condemnation.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Jail and criminal lawsuits are being used against opponents and political adversaries of the Cambodian government. Prime Minister Hun Sen is employing such methods in a systematic fashion "to silence its critics", Human Rights Watch (HRW) said today.

Pa Nguon Teang, vice-director of the US-funded Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), was arrested yesterday in the north-eastern province of Stung Treng, near the border with Laos "under orders from the Ministry of the Interior," Stung Treng police chief said.

CCHR director and founder Kem Sokha, an outspoken critic of the government and the host of the popular radio programme "Voice of Democracy", was arrested last Saturday morning along with Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) for defaming the government.

Mr Sokha was taken into custody after no less than 50 police offers descended upon the offices of the CCHR in the presence of US diplomats and representatives of various human rights groups.

On December 10, at a Human Rights Day rally at Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium organised by the two activists and attended by thousands of people, a banner read: "My vote is my life - I don't vote for political parties that threaten and intimidate the people." 

Dozens of ordinary people had written their own comments on it, some—referring to a controversial border treaty with Vietnam—going as far accusing the government of being a "traitor regime that sells territory to Vietnam." But for the authorities, Sokha and Virak were responsible for these words.

These facts "call into question the Cambodian government's commitment to democracy and human rights," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour expressed her "deep regret" over the arrests of two Cambodian human rights activists.

On December 22, opposition leader Sam Rainsy received an 18-month jail term for defaming the Prime Minister and Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the Speaker of the National Assembly. Mr Rainsy is currently in self-imposed exile after his parliamentary immunity was revoked.

In October, radio journalist Mom Sonando and Rong Chhum, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, were arrested and detained on charges of criminal defamation.

After the Khmer Rouge years and its successor Communist regime, elections in 1993 offered hope that democracy might take root in Cambodia. But since 2003 the government has banned all public demonstrations on the pretext of keeping order.

"Hun Sen appears to be following the Burmese model by imprisoning peaceful critics of his increasingly authoritarian government," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

"The arrest of human rights activists, as well as recent show trials of opposition politicians, is a throwback to the days when Hun Sen ran a one-party state," he lamented.
"The recent arrests and criminal cases threaten to undo all the progress on human rights Cambodia has made since the UN peacekeeping mission left in 1993. The message is clear: If you criticize the government, you will be thrown in jail," Adams said. (PB)

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