More than a dozen members of Cambodia’s main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party will have to wait for the political winds to shift before they can be freed from the notorious Prey Sar Prison, officials from both the CNRP and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Whether or not the activists get out of detention, will depend on the political environment,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told RFA. “Their release depends on the political climate and their way out is according to the ruling party.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told RFA that the ruling party is holding 15 party activists as “political” prisoners on charges rights groups say are dubious.
After Yim Sovann and a group of parliamentarians visited the prisoners on March 23, he told RFA that keeping them in jail makes it more difficult for the parties to reach some degree of rapprochement in a bitter feud that has been running since last year.
“It just makes the situation even worse,” he said. “We cannot talk about justice and solidarity and reconciliation when you persecute the opposition party.”
While the CNRP is wary of the CPP, he added: “The CNRP always shows a willingness to negotiate to end the political conflicts.”
The detentions have caught the attention of human rights groups and the international community, Am Sam Ath, Technical Coordinator for the Cambodian human rights organization LICADHO views their release with a sense of fatalism.
“When there are no political negotiations that could lead to the reconciliation, I think the 15 detainees will not get out of jail,” he told RFA.
Sam Rainsy, who heads the CNRP, went into self-imposed exile last year after a warrant was issued for his arrest in a on a seven-year-old defamation charge and the CPP called for his removal from parliament.
Hun Sen and his CPP have ruled the country for 31 years, but corruption, deforestation, land grabs and other social issues have become issues the opposition has seized on ahead of elections in 2017 and 2018.
The CNRP is also pushing Hun Sen and the CPP over their relationship with neighboring Vietnam, which invaded the country in 1978 and set up a government after defeating the Khmer Rouge. While a settlement was agreed to in 1991, Cambodians still harbor suspicions about Vietnam’s intentions.
Among the 15 CNRP members imprisoned in Prey Sar is Hong Sok Hour, a member of the senate from the Sam Rainsy Party whose case is pending at the Phnom Penh Municipal court.
Police arrested Hong Sok Hour in 2015 after he posted comments on social media that claimed an article of the 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Treaty was meant to dismantle, rather than define, the border between the two countries.
He also posted online two copies of the three-decades-old border agreement containing the article's disputed wording.
During a graduation speech in the capital Phnom Penh soon after the posts were published, Hun Sen accused Hong Sok Hour of posting a “fake” copy of the treaty and called for his arrest, ordering the city’s international airport to block him from leaving the country. Hong Sok Hour holds both Cambodian and French citizenship
Hong Sok Hour is just one of the notable prisoners among the 15 that also includes CNRP media director Meach Sovannara and 10 other activists who are serving prison terms for convictions on insurrection charges for participating in a 2014 protest that turned violent in Phnom Penh’s Democracy Plaza.
The indictment alleged that the CNRP plotted to violently storm Democracy Plaza, which is known locally as Freedom Park. The plaza is a legally designated site for demonstrations that had been used by the CNRP to protest election fraud and other irregularities since the July 2013 national elections.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry mentioned the issue of political prisoners when he visited Cambodia in January.
“Democratic governments have a responsibility to ensure that all elected representatives are free to perform their responsibilities without fear of attack or arrest,” he said. “That is a fundamental responsibility of a democratic government, so as Cambodians prepare for elections next year and again in 2018 it is very important to allow for vigorous but peaceful debate.”
Reported by Moniroth Morm for RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.