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Senior US Diplomat Urges Release of Mam Sonando, Return of Sam Rainsy

Michael Posner, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State in charge of human rights, democracy and labor talks during his visit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday, February 19, 2013. (Heng Reaksmey)
A top State Department diplomat on Tuesday met with government officials in Phnom Penh, including Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, to press improvements of human rights and democracy.

Michael Posner, Assistant Secretary of State in charge of human rights, democracy and labor, urged the government to release Beehive Radio owner Mam Sonando and allow for the return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy ahead of elections scheduled for July, among other suggestions for the improvement of the country’s deteriorating rights environment.

Mam Sonando is serving a 20-year prison sentence for charges that many rights observers have said were unjustly leveled at him after he criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen. Sam Rainsy is in exile abroad, facing a lengthy prison sentence on charges he says are similarly politically motivated.

“We are greatly concerned by the continued imprisonment of Mam Sonando, a leading media figure, who has called for political reform,” Posner told reporters Tuesday. “We urge his release. It is a sign of a healthy democracy that even those who most disagree with those in power can make their voices heard, including criticism, without fear of being silenced.”

US President Barack Obama and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have each urged the Cambodian government to better respect human rights and to ensure free and fair elections. Meanwhile, opposition lawmakers have formed a new party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, to contest the July elections. Sam Rainsy is the head of that party, but he has so far been unable to return to lead a campaign. And opposition lawmakers say they are facing a biased electoral system of rules that favor the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

“Parliamentary elections in July will test the government’s stated commitment to promoting multi-party democracy,” Posner said Tuesday. “A number of Cambodian organizations and political parties have offered recommendations for a more open process to govern these elections. We urge the government to give serious consideration to these proposals. The government needs to take concrete steps to ensure a level playing field so that all political participants representing a wide range of views are able to compete fairly in the July election, including Sam Rainsy. The credibility of these elections will be judged by whether political opposition is allowed to participate fully and fairly.”

Ouch Borith, secretary of state for the Foreign Affairs Ministry, told reporters that the Cambodian government can’t intervene in the workings of the court, lest it undermine the rule of law.

“Law implementation is the strengthening of democracy and human rights,” he said. “If there is no respect of the law, like they have demanded us to release the two prisoners, Sam Rainsy and Mam Sonando, it is a demand for us to cause anarchy, which we cannot comply with, as a country with our own national sovereignty and independence.”