A group of 10 land-rights activists were freed from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison on Saturday afternoon after receiving a royal pardon that resulted from negotiations between opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen over the past week.
The release of the activists — widely seen as political prisoners — comes just two days after lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties approved all nine members of the new National Election Committee, a central piece of the July political deal that ended the CNRP’s 10-month boycott of parliament.
The released activists include Tep Vanny and nine other members of the Boeng Kak community. Seven were jailed for placing a bed in the street during a protest on November 10, while the other three were arrested the next day during a demonstration to demand their release.
Emerging from Prey Sar’s Correctional Center 2 shortly after 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, the activists — Ms. Vanny, Nget Khun, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha, Pan Chunreth, Bop Chorvy, Nong Sreng, Heng Pich, Im Srey Touch and Puong Sopheap — were embraced by about 100 of their relatives, community members and CNRP officials.
“The ten of us are very happy to rejoin our families, especially our children, communities and organizations,” Ms. Vanny said.
“We are innocent people and we suffered an injustice from the non-independent courts in Cambodia, which arrested and put us in prison for five months,” she added.
Before the activists were pardoned, they were asked to drop an appeal with the Supreme Court against their convictions, which were upheld by the Appeal Court and carried prison sentences of up to a year.
Choung Choungy, a prominent lawyer for the opposition, said on Friday that the CNRP’s legal team had advised the activists to drop their appeal in order to secure their release.
Mr. Choungy said on Saturday that he did not know who signed off on the royal pardon, with King Norodom Sihamoni currently on a routine medical visit to China. When the king is not available to sign a royal pardon, the acting head of state may sign on his behalf.
A spokesman for the Justice Ministry could not be reached.
Khek Chanreaksmey, a Boeng Kak activist who was not among those imprisoned, said on Friday that although the activists had dropped their appeal, the pardon was equivalent to a reversal of the court’s decision.
“They were imprisoned unjustly, but we were forced to ask for a pardon because the social situation made us fall into a political issue,” Ms. Chanreaksmey said.
“I think that when they are pardoned, they are no longer guilty.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)