The Cambodian government on Tuesday released 14 jailed opposition party activists freed under a royal pardon requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen following his party’s return to power in an election widely condemned as unfair.
The fourteen were serving long sentences for “insurrection” in connection with anti-government street protests in 2014 that turned into violent clashes with police and security forces, and were released after sending letters of apology to Hun Sen.
Their release at around 1:00 a.m. on Aug. 28 follows the freeing under a decree by Cambodian King Sihamoni earlier this month of Tep Vanny, a prominent land activist, and three other campaigners convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab.
The decree came just days after Cambodia’s National Election Commission announced the results of the country’s July 29 election, confirming that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had swept the ballot and won all 125 parliamentary seats in play.
The election had been widely dismissed as one-sided and unfair following the dissolution and banning of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha two months earlier on allegations of a plot to topple the government.
Kem Sokha was not freed in Tuesday’s prisoner release, and remains in jail.
Writing on his Facebook page, former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile in Paris, welcomed Tuesday’s prisoner release, calling it a response by Hun Sen to foreign pressure to free his critics—a suggestion Hun Sen has strongly denied.
“Fellow Cambodians, don’t believe Hun Sen’s lies, and don’t let him bully you,” Sam Rainsy said. “He has actually been cornered by unprecedented international pressure.”
“Those prisoners do not need to ask Hun Sen’s forgiveness. It is Hun Sen who must ask their forgiveness for having arrested them in the first place,” Sam Rainsy said, adding that he expects Kem Sokha will also soon be freed and calling for the full reinstatement of the CNRP.
Speaking to RFA's Khmer Service on Aug. 28, former CNRP media and communications director Meach Sovanarra said that he and the other prisoners freed Tuesday should never have been jailed in the first place, calling their imprisonment “unjust.”
CNRP activist Neang Sokhan, also freed on Tuesday, meanwhile said that the political situation in Cambodia remains tense, “because not all political prisoners have been released yet, especially Kem Sokha.”
Filmmaker hopes for release
Now on trial in Cambodia on charges of espionage, Australian filmmaker and Hun Sen critic James Ricketson voiced hope in a Sydney Morning Herald article on Tuesday that he might be included in a prisoner release, saying that a journalist’s work, however critical its tone, should not be confused with spying.
“There is now a certain amount of evidence that perhaps I am a political prisoner,” Ricketson told reporters following a court appearance on Aug. 28, and quoted by the Herald.
“If I am, I hope I am released along with the other political prisoners as soon as possible.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Richard Finney.