The Cambodian government claims a recent lawsuit against prominent human-rights campaigners that led to their detention this week was a justifiable measure to ensure the ruling party's victory in future elections. The detentions are adding to concern that the government is becoming increasingly authoritarian.
Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith says the government is suing Kem Sokha, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Yeng Virak, the director of the Cambodian Legal Education Center, to protect its image for local and national elections.
"We have to sue them," he said. "The most important thing is the general election. And in [a] general election in Cambodia and everywhere in the world, your prestige would be a great asset."
But the spokesman says the court then acted independently in ordering the activists to be detained Saturday.
International rights organizations have long criticized the Cambodian government for manipulating the judiciary to quash political opposition.
The government is suing the activists for criminal defamation because a banner they displayed at an International Human Rights Day event in December featured comments written by the public criticizing the government.
Spokesman Khieu Kanharith says the banner called the government "traitorous" and "communist" and accused it of selling Cambodian land to Vietnam. Prime Minister Hun Sen recently signed a border agreement with Vietnam that political opponents claim compromises Cambodian territory.
The government spokesman insists the ruling party would be committing political suicide before the 2008 elections if accusations it had sold territory to Vietnam or Thailand were allowed to circulate.
Human Rights Watch and the State Department have condemned the latest detentions.
The detentions follow the conviction of opposition leader Sam Rainsy last month and the jailing of an independent journalist and a union president in October - all for defamation. Five other activists facing defamation charges over the border issue have fled the country.
A motorbike taxi driver in Phnom Penh said Tuesday people are becoming nervous.
"Now it is difficult to speak," he said. "When people speak, there are always spies investigating and hurting or threatening the people who advocate for democracy."
While the leaders of some civic groups involved with the human rights day event have gone into hiding, more than 60 organizations have banded together to petition the Cambodian king and the U.N. secretary-general for the activists' release.