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Cambodian Leader Drops Defamation Charges Against Critics

Cambodia's Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has ordered the courts to drop defamation charges against several prominent critics. Human rights activists hope the move will lead to better dialogue with the government.

Hun Sen's surprise decision on Tuesday came one day after the four activists wrote letters of regret to the prime minister.

Human rights activists Kem Sokha and Pa Nguon Teang, union leader Rong Chhun and journalist Mam Sonando had been detained after criticizing a controversial border pact with Vietnam, Cambodia's historical enemy.

Several other critics of the government have fled the country to avoid arrest.

Cambodian and international rights groups, as well as several foreign governments, criticized the Cambodian government over the lawsuits, saying they were evidence of a clampdown on dissent.

The U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Christopher Hill, on a visit to Cambodia last week, urged the government to withdraw the charges. The four activists were then released on bail, but the prime minister said they would still face trial.

A fifth activist, Yeng Virak, director of the Community Legal Education Center was also released on bail last week but it was not clear whether charges against him had been dropped.

Cambodian human rights groups say they are not sure what caused Tuesday's change of heart. Ou Virak, spokesperson of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says he welcomes the move. But he remains cautious.

"It appears to be a positive sign. But you know, in this country, things can turn around and change quickly," said Ou. "We hope it will lead to cooperation between civil society and the government, and we are hoping that this is a positive sign that will lead to a better democratic Cambodia."

Hun Sen said Tuesday he also would ask the courts to drop charges against those critics who have fled abroad, if they, too, apologize to him.

But a defamation conviction against opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who fled to France, will not be reviewed. Sam Rainsy received an 18-month jail term in absentia for accusing Hun Sen of trying to kill him in a 1997 grenade attack.