PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia yesterday released four imprisoned government critics, a union leader, a radio journalist and two social activists, apparently in a gesture to the United States, which had condemned the arrests.
Prime Minister Hun Sen met with the assistant US secretary of state, Christopher Hill, before the four activists were released, the leader promised to ask a Cambodian court to free them on bail. But the government said the four still face defamation charges.
Hill, who was in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, for the opening of a new US Embassy, welcomed the release.
''I think it's a positive step but I'd like to see it followed up by other steps," he said at a news conference at the Embassy.
''Clearly our interest would be to see that this judicial process not go forward and that these people can be free to go about their lives," Hill added.
Om Yentieng, an adviser to Hun Sen, quoted the prime minister as saying he had made the bail request as '''a gift for Mr. Christopher Hill on the inauguration of the new US Embassy."'
Hun Sen ''is doing this with his heart, as a Cambodian helping other Cambodians" Om Yentieng said after the meeting between the prime minister and the US envoy.
Later in the day, a radio journalist, Mom Sonando, a union leader Rong Chhun, and two social activists, Kem Sokha and Pa Nguon Tieng, both of the US-funded Cambodian Center for Human Rights, walked out of prison and were greeted by more than 100 supporters.
''I thank the Cambodian people for supporting me," Kem Sokha said with a smile, raising his clenched fists in the air as the crowd responded with cries of ''Long live democracy!"
Hun Sen has sued the four for criticizing a border demarcation pact he signed with neighboring Vietnam in October. The activists allegedly implied that the agreement ceded Cambodian land to Vietnam.
The United States had condemned their arrests as part of a government campaign to neutralize opponents.
Many fear that Cambodia is drifting into authoritarian rule under Hun Sen. Hill said he had a ''good give-and-take" conversation with Hun Sen about the situation in Cambodia.
''Obviously there's some expression of concern in various places about the course of democracy. Cambodia needs to make progress in this area," he said.
Om Yentieng said the release of the four on bail did not mean that the defamation charges will be dropped. ''They will have to show up at court the day their trials begin," he said. The penalty for criminal defamation ranges from eight days to one year in jail with a fine of up to $2,440.