Cambodian Critic Charged With Defamation Over Comments on Facebook

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Ny Nak at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in December 2020. Photo: Phnom Penh Post.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — An outspoken critic of Cambodia’s government who was badly hurt by assailants four months ago has been arrested on a defamation complaint brought by a Cabinet member for comments he posted on Facebook.

The complaint filed by Minister of Labor and Vocational Training Heng Sour against Ny Nak drew sharp criticism from Human Rights Watch, which said it showed that the government of Prime Minister Hun Manet is as repressive as the one that preceded it. Hun Manet in August succeeded his father Hun Sen, who tolerated little opposition while he was in power for 38 years.

Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, said that Hun Manet “is following closely in the footsteps of his father in restricting the rights to express opinions, join independent organizations, and hold peaceful public protests, and he is suppressing news of these actions by attacking the few remaining independent media outlets operating in the country.”

He said that Ny Nak “has done nothing that he should be arrested for” and called for his release.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday ordered Ny Nak held on charges of incitement and defamation, after the labor minister filed a criminal complaint against him for comments he posted on Facebook in December last year.

His post questioned the government’s decision to hand over some 91 hectares (225 acres) of land in the southern province of Kampot province to an individual he named only as Heng Sour, who a local newspaper later said was the minister.

If convicted on both charges, Ny Nak could face up to five years in prison.

The Labor Ministry said the named individual was not the minister and asked that Ny Nak retract the post because it contained incorrect information, but Ny Nak refused.

A statement from the court issued after his jailing said that by refusing to issue a retraction, Ny Nak showed malicious intent, which justified charging and holding him in pre-trial detention.

Ny Nak, who is an agricultural expert and entrepreneur as well as a social commentator, has gotten in trouble before for his posts. He has more than 400,000 followers.

In September, he criticized Agriculture Minister Dith Tina, especially on rice prices. Shortly after, he was beaten with metal batons by a group of men in black clothing wearing motorcycle helmets who forced his motorcycle off the road.

He had previously been sentenced in August 2021 to 18 months in prison on charges of incitement after making a satirical post criticizing then-Prime Minister Hun Sen’s COVID-19 restrictions.

Labor Ministry spokesperson Sun Mesa said on his Facebook page that Ny Nak has the right to speak out on social media, but Heng Sour also has the right to respond by suing him. He accused Ny Nak of violating others’ rights by posting untrue information for the purpose aof getting attention to promote himself and his own interests.

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BY SOPHENG CHEANG Associated Press

Associated Press writer Grant Peck in Bangkok contributed to this report.