PHNOM PENH - US President Barack Obama spent much of his time in a short meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen this week discussing his concern for Cambodia’s human rights record, even as members of the president’s team met with local rights advocates.
Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and the president’s National Security Council human rights aid, Samantha Power, met with local rights groups on Tuesday, discussing how the situation might be improved, US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh told reporters Wednesday. Obama “was not shy” in discussing human rights concerns with the Cambodian premier, he said.
That included US concern for the imprisonment of Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive Radio, one of the few independent broadcasters in the country.
“Our concern is that Mam Sonando was imprisoned for his freedom of expression, for his criticism against the government,” McIntosh said. To the US, the case is “politically motivated, rather than adhering to the rule of law.”
Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that in meetings with the US president’s aids, rights workers outlined their ongoing concerns for jailed rights and housing activists, court corruption and a biased National Election Committee. They also discussed the Beehive Radio case, he said.
For Mam Sonando, who was visited by his wife, Din Phanara, in Prey Sar prison after the US president met with Hun Sen, US interest has given him some hope he will be released.
“He is happy and proud that the US president talked about him,” she told VOA Khmer at the offices of Beehive, which continues its broadcasts, including programming by the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and others. “Given the fact that he loves democracy, justice and defends freedom of speech, he hopes that the US is defending him, vigorously supporting him, because his principles are the same as those of the US.”
Mam Sonando’s July arrest came shortly after his return to Cambodia from a trip to the US, where he met with government critics in what he claims was a journalistic capacity. At the time, Hun Sen alluded to him in a speech, calling him a “ringleader” who was fomenting unrest. Rights groups say he was then convicted by the court of Phnom Penh on thin evidence.
Following Hun Sen’s meeting with Obama, Prak Sokhon, a secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, told reporters that the US has a “misunderstanding” of Mam Sonando’s case.
Beehive Radio continues to operate, he said, “with no change to its popularity and its wide audience,” he said. Hun Sen also told Obama that Mam Sonando is in jail because he “violated rules of the law.” “And that case has reached the Appeals Court, so the case should be left alone for the court to decide,” Prak Sokhon said.
Din Phanara, however, said the case against her husband was “politically motivated.” There is no sign for now that Mam Sonando will be released and no further statements on the matter have come from Hun Sen.
On Tuesday, the prime minister wrapped up regional meetings, including an Asean summit, with moist eyes, speaking with pride as if to the spirit of deceased former king Norodom Shihanouk, before telling the numerous reporters gathered that he would not take questions.
“As you know, I am a very talkative person and am not afraid of any questions,” he said. “I can even talk non-stop for more than five hours. But now I am unable to talk further; what I have already said in the written statements.”