CNRP faithful massed outside the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters Monday afternoon to welcome five opposition figures and three monks who were imprisoned in recent months on charges widely seen as political and released on bail following court hearings Monday morning.
During the hearings, judges agreed to release the activists before the Khmer New Year holiday, which begins today, because their detention was not necessary to continue proceedings against them.
The release of the eight comes just two days after 10 land-rights activists—arrested during protests in November—were released from prison following a royal pardon, and less than a week after the CNRP and CPP finalized the composition of the new National Election Committee (NEC).
CNRP official Meach Sovannara was the first to make his way through the human tunnel at the party’s Meanchey district base Monday afternoon. As Mr. Sovannara reached the end of the line, he was embraced by CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha before opposition leader Sam Rainsy raised his hands over his head.
“Today is a big success. Three monks, land activists from Boeng Kak and the [Cambodia] National Rescue Party [activists] were freed from prison and it will not be long before all these issues will end,” Mr. Rainsy told the crowd over a public address system.
“On behalf of Vice President Kem Sokha and myself as leaders, the National Rescue Party has never bowed to intimidation from somebody else,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Despite being set free on bail, the eight activists still face charges including participation in an insurrection, intentional violence, obstructing public officials and joining a criminal association. After his speech, Mr. Rainsy said the party would now seek to have those charges dropped.
The released opposition figures include Mr. Sovannara, Chbar Ampov district councilor Soum Puthy and party activists Tep Narin, Ouk Pich Samnang and Ke Khim, who were arrested over an opposition protest in July that turned into a brawl between CNRP supporters and district security guards. The monks—Soeung Hai, Khit Vannak and Sang Kosal—were defrocked and imprisoned during protests in November.
Following the July brawl, CNRP public affairs chief Mu Sochua and six other lawmakers were arrested and spent about a week in prison before being released just hours after Prime Minister Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy negotiated an end to the opposition’s 10–month boycott of parliament.
Monday’s releases again follow the completion of high-level negotiations between the CPP and CNRP over the creation of the new NEC.
Upon being freed from Prey Sar prison at about 1:30 p.m., the activists were greeted by about 100 supporters, including CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann and union leader Vorn Pao.
Mr. Sovannara, who holds U.S. citizenship, told reporters he was wary of being used as a political bargaining chip.
“The political issues have to be solved through politics, so I dare not say anything to violate the discretion of the court, but we can look and know how our country solved [this problem],” he said.
The three monks emerged from the prison wearing saffron robes, despite having been defrocked before they were jailed. Soeung Hai said that while in prison, he and his fellow monks never violated Buddhist doctrine, including not eating after sundown.
“We are pure people who have done nothing wrong,” he said.
Contacted by telephone, Khim Sorn, chief of the Mohanikaya Buddhist sect in Phnom Penh, said he was unsure why the monks had left prison wearing robes.
“They must visit a pagoda and satisfy monk authorities in order to become monks again,” he said, declining to comment further.
Of the three activist monks—all ethnic Khmer Krom—Soeung Hai has been the most militant, leading the burning of Vietnamese flags at protests in front of the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh last year.
Back at headquarters on Monday, where some 400 CNRP supporters were gathered, Thach Setha, a senior party official and head of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, said he expected the monks to continue their social activism.
“I think they will still be active, the same as before,” he said.
Ny Chakriya, the head of monitoring for local rights group Adhoc, said the forgiving spirit pervading the courts in recent days could quickly change at the CPP’s whim.
“If the politicians heat up again, it will have an impact,” he said. “But if the political heat remains the same as it is today, I believe the release on bail will be equal to an acquittal.”
(Additional reporting by Matt Blomberg)