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Arrest of Cambodian Commentator Sparks Outcry

FILE - The Facebook logo is seen on a cell phone, on Oct. 14, 2022.
FILE - The Facebook logo is seen on a cell phone, on Oct. 14, 2022.

A Cambodian social commentator has been charged with incitement and jailed in a remote prison after criticizing a government minister on Facebook, sparking an outcry from human rights organizations amid other recent arrests of dissidents.

Ny Nak, a 46-year-old seller of organic fertilizers and other agricultural products, runs a popular Cambodian Facebook page called IMan-KH. Interspersed with sales deals and tips for growing healthy crops, Nak fires off posts about politics and the Cambodian government to about 425,000 followers.

The current incident dates back to a December 11 article published by the exiled online media outlet Cambodia Daily that identified Labor Minister Heng Sour as the recipient of a 91-hectare land giveaway. Nak speculated on Facebook the land would be used to build factories for Labor and Vocational Training Ministry officials. Over the next few days, both a Labor Ministry official and Prime Minister Hun Manet publicly denied that the minister had received the land and said it was intended for a different individual with the same name.

On December 17, after the denials, Nak posted again, asking: "What achievements has Heng Sour done for the Khmer nation, that the government gave him forest land as his personal property? RIP Khmer forests."

Nak was arrested on January 5, after Sour, the labor minister, filed a defamation complaint against him, ministry spokesperson Katta Orn told VOA.

His words "affected the fame and dignity of the minister" and disseminated "untrue information with ill intention to incite and confuse public opinion," Orn said. Nak, who has previous arrests, faces charges of defamation and incitement, punishable with up to three years of jail time, which could be doubled because of a prior conviction clause.

On January 28, he was transferred to Correctional Center 3, located more than 150 kilometers from Phnom Penh, near the Vietnamese border. A spokesperson for the Department of Prisons at the Ministry of Interior, Nuth Savna, told VOA that Nak was transferred because of overcrowding.

"Over there, freedom is tightly restricted. He has more psychological stress," Nak’s wife, Sok Synet, 42, told VOA. "His health is not good."

Human rights groups emphasized that defamation does not, on its own, carry a jail sentence under Cambodian law, and that citizens should be able to question official narratives without fearing imprisonment.

"Citizens shouldn’t be thrown in jail for criticizing the actions of their government or publicly raising important issues," Naly Pilorge, outreach director at Cambodian human rights organization Licadho said.

"To throw Ny Nak in prison again over Facebook comments, and then transfer him to a prison far away from his family, is an abuse of the legal system," she said.

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, struck a similar chord.

"The persecution of Ny Nak shows that Hun Manet will not tolerate any sort of critical public criticism from anyone, no matter how big or small," he told VOA. "He seems determined to intimidate everyone, ranging from individual activists to civil society groups and organized political opposition parties."

"Manet's message to ordinary Cambodians is sit down and shut up, or else," Robertson added.

The family’s income has dropped by more than half since Nak’s arrest, Synet said, in part because police seized the phones the couple used to sell fertilizer products. She said she is worried about traveling so far to see him, as well as keeping up with payments for their daughter’s university education.

"It’s far, and I need to spend more money when I go to visit him," she said.

Past troubles with the government

Nak has faced government backlash before. In 2020, he was arrested and ultimately served 18 months for parodying a speech by former prime minister Hun Sen, replacing words about a COVID-19 state of emergency with references to his chicken coop.

Last September, Nak and Synet were assaulted by a group of men wielding metal batons while driving their motorbike in the capital. Nak was heavily beaten in the head and said that he believed the attack was related to his criticism of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which the ministry denied.

The incident bore a resemblance to six other assaults against opposition members that occurred throughout last year, before Cambodia’s July national election, during which attackers allegedly beat supporters of the Candlelight Party with extendable metal batons on motorbikes.

Candlelight was considered the only viable opposition to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People's Party but was barred from participating in the election. Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son, became prime minister the following month in a dynastic handover and ushered in a wave of new officials, many of whom are family relations of the prior generation.

Pilorge told VOA that Nak’s arrest "reveals that the new government leaders appear the same as their predecessors in their willingness to misuse institutions to silence active, outspoken citizens."

She pointed to at least four other arrests in January of opposition figures from the Candlelight Party before the February 25 Senate election, when local officials are to vote for new senators. Three Cambodian human right activists were arrested in Thailand on February 2 after fleeing political persecution in Cambodia.

The Phnom Penh Appeal Court also recently upheld the conviction of former Candlelight vice president Thach Setha and rejected a request from another prominent former opposition leader, Kem Sokha, to review the conditions of his house arrest after he was convicted of treason last March.

The arrests also come as Hun Manet, about six months into his appointment as prime minister, tries to project an image of "certainness and strength" and repair Western relationships, Katrin Travouillon, a senior lecturer and Cambodia expert at the Australian National University, told VOA.

"They’ve invested a lot in lobbying efforts and changing their rhetoric and improving their image, but I don’t see that it’s accompanied by any substantive changes, especially when it comes to handling domestic critiques," Travouillon said. "You just find repetition of the same patterns."

Robertson said Hun Manet’s "global charm offensive" drew a stark contrast with the recent spate of arrests.

"Whether he is continuing his father's repressive legacy or acting out of his own conviction doesn't really matter," Robertson told VOA. "The bottom line is virtually all civil and political freedoms are harshly restricted, and those daring to defy Manet get smashed with harsh criminal sentences."

Synet, Nak’s wife, said her husband had rejected her plea to apologize and join the ruling party, as other government critics have done in the past. In a Facebook update she posted on his behalf, Nak said he would stay firm.

"I will not apologize in order to be released," the post said. "I will be in jail until the sentence is finished."