Five Cambodian opposition party activists and three monks were released from jail on bail on Monday, two days after 10 imprisoned land-rights activists were granted amnesty and released from the same notorious detention center.
The release of the prisoners from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison followed successful negotiations last week between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on the approval of members to the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees elections in the country.
The five released CNRP activists, who included the party’s media director Meach Sovannara, along with three monks, remain under police surveillance.
During the weekend, the Phnom Penh municipal court also released 10 female land-rights activists from the Boeung Kak and Thmor Korl communities from prison on bail, although they, too, remain under police surveillance.
Ny Chakriya, chief investigator of the rights group Adhoc, said the court’s decision to free the detainees had nothing to do with justice, but instead resulted from a political deal emanating from the formation of the new NEC and political dialogue between the two parties.
“This case is purely a politically motivated one,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service. “The release [of the prisoners] today wasn’t a court decision; it was all about political negotiations, especially the discussion between [Prime Minister] Hun Sen and [CNPR president] Sam Rainsy.”
Soeurn Hai, a Khmer Kampuchea Krom monk who was one of the detainees, said he was not happy about being released from prison because he felt as though he was a victim of political games.
“This is not a surprise,” he told RFA. “I didn’t make any mistake.”
During the hearings, Phnom Penh court judge Lim Makaron did not allow the detainees’ lawyers to make any lengthy remarks.
Some observers who monitored the hearing told RFA that the activists and monks were released because the court was not interested in finding them guilty.
CNRP issues statement
The CNRP issued a statement on Monday welcoming the release of those who were detained, and said the party maintained its stand during eight months of negotiations with the CPP on electoral reform.
“The CNRP would like to thank those victims who sent us massages while they were detained and asked us not to give in by exchanging their release so we could firmly negotiate with the CPP in order to achieve our nationalist and democratic goals,” the statement said.
The other four released CNRP members were Tep Narin, Sum Puthy, Ke Khim and Ouk Pich Samnung. They, along with Meach Sovannara, had been arrested on various charges, including “insurrection,” in connection to violence that erupted during protests last July in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, despite reports that they had sought to quell the melee.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) issued a statement on Monday after their release, saying that the charges against the five were politically motivated and should be dropped.
Land-rights activists released
The 10 land-rights activists from the Boeung Kak and Thmor Korl communities of Phnom Penh were released on Friday after spending five months in prison, when King Norodom Sihamoni granted them amnesty.
Their supporters gathered in front of the detention facility to welcome the activists, who wore T-shirts reading “The whole world is watching.”
The activists welcomed their release, but said their arrest and detention were unjust.
Tep Vanny, the freed Boeung Kak community leader, vowed to continue to advocate for residents’ land rights until there was a solution.
“After the [Cambodian] New Year [on April 13], we will continue to protest to demand a solution to our land dispute case," she told reporters following her release.
Vanny and six other activists were arrested last November for protesting by blocking traffic on a road in the capital. During their trial, two other Boeung Kak activists were arrested along with a land activist from the Thmor Korl airport-area community and a Buddhist monk for protesting outside the courtroom.
Residents of the Boeung Kak Lake community have fought authorities for years over the evictions of thousands of families to make way for a development project that has yet to materialize.
Ho Vann, a CNRP lawmaker and chairman of the National Assembly's anti-corruption committee, said the current political situation led to the activists’ release.
"We can say that because of good political environment that leads to this release," he said.
Last week, parliament voted to appoint nine members to the new National Election Committee (NEC). The members, who include four ruling Union party representatives, four CNRP representatives, and one neutral representative, took office on Monday.
After their release, the activists went to the home of CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha, where party leader Sam Rainsy also was present.
Rainsy previously had charged that the arrests of the land-rights activists, as well as the CNRP officials and monks, were meant to force his party’s negotiators to back down in the election reform talks.
Don’t use activists for political gain
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at Cambodia’s Community Legal Education Center, said the government released the activists because the CPP reached an agreement with CNRP leaders.
But he added that politicians shouldn't use activists for their political gain.
"We want politicians to stop playing games by arresting activists in exchange for their political benefit," he said.
CPP spokesman Chhim Phal Virun said Hun Sen had requested a pardon for the 10 activists, but their subsequent release occurred not because of a political deal, but because they had behaved well, according to an article in The Cambodia Daily.
The CCHR noted that although the releases of all the detainees were cause for celebration, none of them should have been arrested in the first place.
“Sadly, the courts in Cambodia continue to be used to crack down on dissent rather than protect citizens from abuses of power,” Chak Sopheap, CCHR executive director, said in the statement. “It is critical that political parties work together to end this practice and prioritize meaningful judicial reform to make the courts truly independent.”
In addition to the release of the CNRP members, land activists and monks, the king granted 37 female inmates across the country amnesty by releasing them from prison as part of the country’s New Year’s celebrations on Monday.
Hun Sen previously had vowed to free female prisoners who were pregnant and had children living with them inside detention centers.
Reported by Prach Chev and other members of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.