The monthslong legal pursuit of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha appeared to come to an abrupt end on Friday after he was granted a royal pardon at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mr. Sokha, holed up in the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh since May, was absolved of a conviction relating to a “prostitution” case involving his alleged mistress, but was set to remain on the premises for the evening, with opposition spokesmen saying they were unsure when he would go back home.
Mr. Sokha was sentenced in September to five months in prison for refusing to appear for questioning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as a witness in a case widely derided as a politically motivated effort by the government to muzzle the opposition.
Mr. Sokha wrote to the prime minister on Thursday requesting he intervene by requesting a pardon from the king.
“We all are Khmer who have suffered and lost many things we love,” Mr. Sokha wrote in the letter, posted online on Friday by Khmer-language news site Fresh News.
“I also understand that in Cambodia’s past internal disputes, we have settled through national reconciliation and unity between Khmer and Khmer despite having different political agendas,” he wrote.
Mr. Hun Sen penned a letter to the king on Friday asking him “to grant a royal decree to pardon inmate Kem Sokha, who was sentenced by the court.”
Later in the day, King Norodom Sihamoni issued a decree pardoning the deputy opposition leader.
The move was a sudden departure from a long pursuit of Mr. Sokha through the courts, with his case also putting four officers from rights group Adhoc and an election official in jail over charges of allegedly bribing Mr. Sokha’s mistress to lie to authorities.
Contacted after the pardon was made public, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the action reflected Mr. Hun Sen’s forgiving nature.
“We think that this is the best characteristic of our leader. Even if both parties have different ideas, we also help them,” Mr. Eysan said, adding that he did not know if others would also be pardoned.
Apart from the arrests directly related to Mr. Sokha’s case, several opposition lawmakers and activists have also been jailed during the past year, while CNRP President Sam Rainsy has been exiled from the country in an apparent violation of his constitutional rights as a citizen.
In spite of the pardon, however, Mr. Sokha was set to remain holed up at party headquarters for the time being, though CNRP spokesmen could not provide clear reasons why.
“I don’t see any reasons for him to stay at the headquarters anymore because everything is solved,” said lawmaker Yim Sovann. “Once he received the pardon from the king, I think there are no more problems.”
Another spokesman, Yem Ponhearith, said Mr. Sokha would likely return home after a group of CNRP youth activists from Kompong Cham and Tbong Khmum provinces visit the opposition headquarters on Sunday.
Political analyst Ou Virak said he believed that neither the opposition nor the government wanted Mr. Sokha behind bars and that it was the right time for a deal to be made before the case was put before the Supreme Court. The prime minister had previously stated that he was helpless to offer any help to Mr. Sokha until the case was settled by the top court.
“I think there was a lot of pressure for a concession from the opposition and I think…that if there were any deals to be made it needed to be made before the Supreme Court made a ruling,” Mr. Virak said.
“I’m not completely surprised because I think if you look at it, I think neither side wanted to send Kem Sokha to prison. Certainly Kem Sokha didn’t want to go to prison, but also neither did the CPP,” he said.
“I don’t think the government wanted to make a martyr out of Kem Sokha.”
The case originally stemmed from recorded telephone calls, allegedly of Mr. Sokha engaging in conversations of a sexual nature with a woman who was later identified as 25-year-old manicurist Khom Chandaraty.
Ms. Chandaraty initially denied that she was the woman in the recordings and received legal support from rights group Adhoc amid an investigation led by anti-terrorism police, whose role in the case remains unexplained.
Under questioning for the prostitution charges, Ms. Chandaraty confessed to having had an affair with Mr. Sokha.
The case against Ms. Chandaraty then went silent, but the court forged ahead with the prosecution of Mr. Sokha for refusing to appear as a witness, despite his lawyers claiming that he was constitutionally immune from such prosecution as an elected lawmaker.
The pardon comes at the end of a tumultuous week for Mr. Hun Sen. Online accusations posted to Facebook on Tuesday alleged that he had sent leaked messages promising $1 million to support the activities of Thy Sovantha, a social media starlet who rose to fame as an opposition supporter before turning her back on the party last year.
After receiving his pardon, Mr. Sokha sent a letter to the prime minister thanking him for his assistance.
“The right decision and consideration of Samdech Techo [Hun Sen], as the leader of the Khmer, has shown the nation that we Khmer can settle the issues between Khmer and Khmer and it shows the world that Khmer politicians have mutual understanding and tolerance,” Mr. Sokha wrote in the letter, uploaded to his Facebook page.
(Additional reporting by Hang Sokunthea)