Prominent Cambodian political analyst and social commentator Kim Sok was arrested on Friday and charged with inciting social chaos and defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen during a radio interview with RFA's Khmer Service last week.
Hundreds of supporters protested in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court demanding justice for Kim Sok, who is being detained temporarily in Prey Sar prison on the city's outskirts as he awaits trial.
The court ordered that he be held after he attended a morning hearing about the U.S. $500,000 defamation lawsuit brought against him by Hun Sen.
Court spokesman Ly Sophanna told reporters that the investigating judge handling the case issued a ruling that Kim Sok be held on charges of inciting social chaos and defamation because of comments made during the radio interview that Hun Sen believed implied his government was behind last year's murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley.
A prison officer told RFA's Khmer Service that Kim Sok is locked up in the same building where Oeuth Ang, the man accused of shooting Kem Ley to death last July, is detained. Oueth Ang's trial is scheduled for March.
On Thursday, the same court had denied Kim Sok's request to delay the hearing so he could have more time to find an attorney to represent him in the lawsuit.
Hun Sen sued Kim Sok on Monday for "inciting social chaos" over accusations that the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) led by the prime minister had orchestrated the July 2016 murder of Kem Ley.
Kim Sok told RFA that he couldn't find a lawyer quickly because the attorneys he contacted declined to handle the case or wanted to charge him more than he could afford.
Walk to the courthouse
Prior to his arrival at court, Kim Sok walked from the Wat Pothiyaram pagoda, also known as Wat Chas, accompanied by nearly a dozen Buddhist monks led by prominent monk Buth Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monks Network.
After they left the pagoda and reached a point east of Chroy Changvar Bridge, they were temporarily blocked by district authorities and security guards who prevented the monks from accompanying Kim Sok to court.
Authorities later allowed some of the monks to cross the bridge on foot, while others were made to hire motorized rickshaw drivers.
Several hundred human rights observers, journalists, moto-taxi drivers, and passengers joined the walk to the courthouse.
Prior to his arrest, Kim Sok told reporters that he wanted Cambodians to work toward a democratic society.
"I request that our citizens participate together in practicing their rights as entrusted in a democratic society so that we achieve our common goal for the sake and interest of the nation as a whole," he said.
"I would also like to reiterate that I will not change my stance and that I will never quit, provided that the goal for my country's real change toward democracy has not yet been attained," he said.
"Regardless of my situation, I request that our citizens in the whole country and the world participate in democratic activities so that we can push forward this common goal toward the end," Kim Sok said.
Hun Sen, who has been in power for 31 years, has stepped up legal attacks on government critics and members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) as the country gears up for local elections later this year and general elections in 2018.
OHCHR weighs in
Wan-Hea Lee, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, called for a fair trial conducted by an independent court to determine Kim Sok's guilt or innocence.
"As feared, he was arrested prior to a trial, which should be exceptional but is unfortunately far too common in Cambodia," she said in an email to RFA.
"The lack of clear standards as to what constitutes defamation gives rise to its abuse against vocal individuals, as highlighted by the special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia during her visit last October."
Lee noted that in 2015, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recommended that Cambodia refrain from prosecuting representatives from civil society for expressing their opinions and consider decriminalizing defamation.
"OHCHR concurs with all these views and recommendations," she said.
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