A Cambodian human rights watchdog has asked Prime Minister Hun Sen to grant amnesty to exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy and several activists in conjunction with the upcoming cremation ceremony of former King Norodom Sihanouk.
The Cambodia Watchdog Council’s request to Hun Sen in a letter Monday came more than a week after the leader ordered the release of 500 prisoners and a Thai activist ahead of the cremation ceremony planned for Feb. 4. The government also reduced the prison term for another Thai activist.
The rights group wanted Hun Sen to free jailed independent radio station director Mam Sonando and land activist Yorm Bopha, and allow opposition leader Sam Rainsy and civil society leader Moeung Sonn to return from exile from France.
Sam Rainsy, who is head of the united opposition coalition National Rescue Party (NRP), faces up to 11 years in prison in Cambodia on charges he says were part of a campaign of political persecution by Hun Sen against him. He wants to return to contest national elections in July.
Moeung Sonn, chairman of the Khmer Civilization Foundation, faces two years in prison for "disinformation" after he publicly criticized a government official’s management of the ancient Angkor Wat Hindu complex in Siem Reap province, one of Cambodia’s biggest annual tourist draws.
“Cambodia Watchdog Council requests Prime Minister Hun Sen to drop charges and release Sam Rainsy, Mam Sonando, Moeung Sonn, and Yorm Bopha so that they will have their freedom during the retired King’s cremation on Feb. 4,” said Rong Chhun, a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council.
“We have just more than a week before the funeral procession and this will be a historic day. While the former King was still alive, he always advised the people—especially politicians—to stay united and reconcile within the Khmer family,” said Rong Chhun, who is leader of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association.
The Ministry of Justice had said recently that Mam Sonando and Sam Rainsy are not eligible for pardon because Mam Sonando has not served at least two-thirds of his prison term and Sam Rainsy has not returned to Cambodia to serve his prison term yet.
Ou Virak, director of another rights group Cambodian Center for Human Rights, however maintained that both Moeung Sonn and Mam Sonando are “definitely political prisoners,” adding that the two men had been working to “serve the country” and “didn’t commit any crime.”
Mam Sonando, owner of the Beehive radio station and president of the Association of Democrats, was convicted last year of leading a "secession" plot and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He has been denied release on bail.
Yorm Bopha, who had championed the right to housing for residents forcibly evicted from the capital Phnom Penh’s former Boeung Kak Lake, was ordered to serve three years by a municipal court which convicted her for committing “intentional violence" in connection with the beating of a suspected thief.
Moeung Sonn, who has been living in self-imposed exile for four years, said he has written a letter to Hun Sen asking that he be allowed to return to pay his last respects to Sihanouk, who died at the age of 89 from complications related to a heart attack in Beijing last October.
“I would like to seek intervention from the prime minister to allow me to pay respect to former King Sihanouk for the last time,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that while an earlier request had been “rejected,” he believed conditions had become more favorable for him to make a new request.
“So far the prime minister’s cabinet has rejected my letters. But I hope that situation has improved and I will have hope,” Moeung Sonn said.
He said that he had decided to ask Hun Sen for a pardon because the Cambodian Supreme Court had already upheld the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s 2009 verdict against him following an appeal.
Moeung Sonn said that upon his return he planned to build a hospital near Preah Vihear temple in Siem Reap province as part of a pledge he made to area villagers.
Nov Ra, a cabinet staff member, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen’s cabinet “had not received Moeung Sonn’s letter,” without providing further details.
In July 2009, Moeung Sonn was tried for disinformation and handed a two-year jail term in absentia after he publicly criticized Cabinet Chief Sok An for “mismanaging” Angkor Wat.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.