Four critics of Cambodian government held for defamation freed

Under U.S. pressure, Cambodia released four prominent government critics from a Phnom Penh prison on Tuesday but said they will still face defamation charges. The action was applauded by the U.S. State Department, which had earlier condemned the detentions as hostile to freedom of expression. Those freed Tuesday were radio journalist Mom Sonando, union leader Rong Chhun, and social activists Kem Sokha and Pa Nguon Tieng, both of the U.S.-funded Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

Hun Sen sued them for criminal defamation for criticizing a border demarcation pact he signed with neighboring Vietnam in October. They allegedly implied the deal ceded Cambodian land to Vietnam. Earlier Tuesday, however, Hun Sen told visiting Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Christopher Hill he would ask a Cambodian court to release the four on bail.

"He (Hun Sen) is doing this with his heart, as a Cambodian helping other Cambodians" like himself, Om Yentieng, an adviser to Hun Sen, told reporters after the meeting between the prime minister and the U.S. envoy. The adviser quoted Hun Sen as saying he'd also made the bail request as "a gift for Mr. Christopher Hill on the inauguration of the new U.S. Embassy" in the Cambodian capital on Tuesday. Speaking at a news conference at the embassy, Hill welcomed the release. "I think it's a positive step but I'd like to see it followed up by other steps," he said. "Clearly our interest would be to see that this judicial process not go forward and that these people can be free to go about their lives." The four activists walked out of prison hand in hand to meet more than 100 supporters waiting to greet them.

"I thank the Cambodian people for supporting me," Kem Sokha said with a smile, raising his clenched fists in the air as the crowd responded with cries of "Long live democracy!" Om Yentieng said the granting of bail did not mean that the defamation charges will be dropped.

"They will have to show up at court the day their trials begin," he said. The penalty for criminal defamation ranges from eight days to one year in jail, and a fine of up to 10 million riel (US$2,440, Ђ2,021).

Hill said he had a "good give-and-take" conversation with Hun Sen about the overall situation in Cambodia. "Obviously there's some expression of concern in various places about the course of democracy. Cambodia needs to make progress in this area," he said.

Critics, including the United States, have condemned the recent arrests as part of a government campaign to neutralize opponents, fueling fears that Cambodia is drifting into authoritarian rule, reports the AP. N.U.