Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen Mulling Mass Release of Political Prisoners

The strongman continues to relax restrictions after securing a fifth term in office.

Political commentator Kim Sok (R) talks to the press near the Supreme Court ahead of former CNRP chief Kem Sokha's bail hearing in Phnom Penh, Aug. 22, 2018.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen said Thursday that he is mulling a mass release of political detainees that is likely to include a dozen members of the now dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), as soon as early October.

Addressing several thousand workers in Kandal province, Hun Sen indicated that the amnesty could come during Pchum Ben, a 15-day Buddhist festival honoring ancestors that begins on Oct. 8, but said it was contingent upon the opposition putting an end to statements suggesting he is “under pressure” to release political prisoners amid international condemnation of the country’s July 29 general election.

“I am going to pardon at least 12 detainees either during the upcoming Pchum Ben or during later festivals this year,” he said, apparently referring to a dozen CNRP members who are serving time on social unrest charges.

“Do not say that any release of prisoners is done due to foreign pressure—I really hate such remarks, so mind your words.”

Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) steamrolled last month’s ballot and secured all 125 parliamentary seats in play, but the victory has been widely dismissed as illegitimate following the dissolution of the CNRP in November and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha two months earlier over an alleged plot to topple the government, and amid a crackdown on the media and NGOs.

The prime minister, who secured another five-year term to add to his 33 years in office after official election results were announced last week, has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.

The U.S. last week announced an expansion of visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision to withdraw funding for last month’s elections.

The European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, also withdrew support ahead of the ballot and is currently reviewing a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.

Since the election was finalized, King Norodom Sihamoni has granted a pardon at Hun Sen’s behest to prominent land activist Tep Vanny and three other campaigners convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab, and a court in the capital Phnom Penh released on bail to two former RFA reporters who are facing charges of “espionage.”

Social commentator Kim Sok was also freed from prison last week after completing an 18-month sentence for defamation related to his suggestion that the CPP orchestrated the July 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley, although he still faces another defamation charge following a complaint filed by Hun Sen in January.

‘You will be jailed again’

Hun Sen on Thursday urged recently released political prisoners to “stay humble,” warning them that “there are no provisions in local or international law that say you cannot be jailed again.”

“I’m not gagging you—you can say whatever you want,” he said.

“But freedom of speech cannot be exercised at the expense of others. If you break this law [against defamation], no matter how many times you’ve been jailed, you will be jailed again.”

While the prime minister did not name any specific political prisoners, he appeared to be addressing Kim Sok who, immediately after his release, criticized July’s election as being unfree and unfair.

Kim Sok also questioned the NEC’s claim that more than 80 percent of voters had cast ballots and suggested the number was actually less than 40 percent, amid a call by the CNRP to boycott the vote in protest of its dissolution by the Supreme Court.

While Tep Vanny, who spent more than two years behind bars before being pardoned this week, has been less openly critical of Hun Sen’s rule since her release, she has given multiple interviews to the media in which she expressed anger over the harshness of her sentence.

The activist was convicted in February last year on charges of “aggravated intentional violence” and sentenced to 30 months in prison for assaulting two security officers at a protest she held in front of the home of Hun Sen in 2013 over a forced eviction at the Boeung Kak Lake community in Phnom Penh.

Bail denied

While Hun Sen appears willing to grant clemency to most of his political detractors after securing political victory, he seems less likely to do so for Kem Sokha, who was denied a bail request for the sixth time on Wednesday despite spending nearly a year in pre-trial detention, and amid concerns that he is suffering from medical complications.

The Supreme Court denied the opposition chief bail, upholding a ruling by the Appeals Court, and saying that the 65-year-old needed to remain in custody at his cell in remote Tboung Khmum province to avoid social unrest.

Ahead of the hearing, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called in a statement for Cambodia to “immediately release” Kem Sokha and drop his “preposterous treason charges,” noting that his lawyers have said he is suffering from health problems that include high blood pressure, severe shoulder pain, and diabetes—but prison authorities have denied him appropriate medical treatment.

Judge Kong Srim dismissed the health concerns at the hearing, saying Kem Sokha was in relatively good shape and could be treated by prison doctors if necessary.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.