Military court officials on Monday released two Sam Rainsy Party members accused of trying to assassinate Prime Minister Hun Sen in a 1998 rocket attack in Siem Reap.
Mong Davuth and Kong Bun Heang were quietly driven from military prison shortly before the end of their six-month pre-trial detention period. They spent the night at the house of their lawyer and are expected to be turned over to their families today.
Opposition party leaders called the move by the courts firm evidence that the arrests were politically motivated rather than the result of a legitimate legal investigation. The party has claimed the arrests were part of a larger intimidation campaign against its activists.
“The government admitted today they accused [Sam Rainsy Party members] without any evidence,” party secretary Yim Sovann said.
But court judge Ney Thol told The Associated Press Monday that charges against the two still stand. “They can be re-arrested and jailed whenever sufficient evidence is available,” Ney Thol said.
Military intelligence chief Mol Reoup, who headed up the rocket attack investigation, could not be reached for comment Monday on whether more suspects exist or if new evidence would be submitted to the courts.
In the past, both Mol Reoup and military intelligence official Hour Sareth maintained they had videotaped confessions from the suspects, as well as documents from the Sam Rainsy Party detailing the attack and referring to both by name.
Party members and human rights workers have said the confessions were probably coerced and the documents forged.
Both suspects maintained Monday that they had nothing to do with the attack, which killed one boy and injured three other family members but left Hun Sen unscathed.
“I never go to Siem Reap. How can I know about the attack?” Kong Bun Heang asked from his lawyer’s office Monday, shortly after leaving prison.
Supporters of the prime minister quickly claimed the attack was an attempt on Hun Sen’s life. From witness accounts, however, it was unclear who was the intended target of the four B-40 rockets hidden in the bushes and pointed toward a convoy of government officials and newly-elected parliamentarians.
Opposition party members and human rights workers said the arrests of the pair—and the attempted arrest of a third opposition party member, Sok Yoeun —were made in an attempt to destabilize CPP opponents. All three suspects, according to party officials and their Battambang province neighbors, were old and incapable of carrying out an assassination attempt.
The September 1999 arrests—criticized at the time for being conducted illegally at night—marked the first of several incidents involving Sam Rainsy Party members.
Parliamentarian Lon Phon was kidnapped the following month in what party members called another political attack. Late last year, the government pursued the arrest of Sok Yoeun across the Thai border, engaging in extradition talks for the first time with the Thai government. Sok Yoeun remains in jail in Thailand on immigration charges and it is unclear how Monday’s releases will affect Cambodia’s case against him.
In early February, Sam Rainsy Party Deputy President Kong Korm was questioned about letters allegedly linking him to the Siem Reap attack. He has said the letters were forged.
Yim Sovann called the releases of the two opposition activists “strange” and said they had more to do with the government’s attempts to appease donor countries rather than adhere to the law. “[The government] is trying to show the international community that the courts are independent,” Yim Sovann said.
“The government is trying to save face.”