The Adhoc 5, a group of current and former rights workers who have spent more than a year in provisional detention on bribery charges widely seen as politically motivated, tasted freedom for the first time in 427 days after they were released on bail last night.
In a surprise move by Investigating Judge Theam Chan Piseth, the five were released from two prisons where they had been held for more than a year in jail.
According to the municipal court director, the judge’s decision was based on the fact that he had concluded his investigation and that some of the Adhoc 5 were suffering from poor health. The five are still facing trial on a date yet to be set.
Ny Chakrya, one of the five, stepped out of Phnom Penh’s PJ Prison at about 8:30 p.m. with his wife and three children by his side to be welcomed by friends and family who rushed to the detention center on news of their imminent release.
“I am happy,” he told reporters, laconic but beaming. “I can continue my work.”
Of the Adhoc 5, the four current employees of rights group Adhoc—Ny Sokha, 51, Nay Vanda, 42, Yi Soksan, 54, and Lim Mony, 58—are accused of bribing the alleged mistress of then-deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha to deny an affair. Mr. Chakrya, 46, a former Adhoc employee who had since taken up a post at the National Election Committee, is accused of being an accomplice. All five deny the charges, insisting they were only providing the young woman with legal assistance.
Upon his release, Mr. Chakrya left the prison and headed home.
About an hour earlier, the rest of the Adhoc 5 were released from Prey Sar prison. They were all back at the Adhoc office for an impromptu media conference by 8:30 p.m. There were many hugs and tears as they reunited with wives and children.
The large canvas banner strung up outside the office keeping track of each day the detainees had spent behind bars was promptly pulled down. It had racked up 427 days. Inside, they were all welcomed with cupcakes decorated with tiny cutouts of the Statue of Liberty to mark their newfound—if uncertain—freedom.
“I feel that we are still disappointed,” said Mr. Sokha, the NGO’s head of monitoring. “In fact, we should be happy because we have been released from prison. We have freedom. But while I’m happy, it’s mixed with a lot of disappointment.”
“I am disappointed because during all this time, we believed that we did not do anything wrong at all, but we were put in prison. We thought that, because we were doing social work, we were partners of the government and working so hard to improve the human rights sector.”
Asked if they considered themselves political prisoners, Mr. Sokha avoided a direct answer.
“I’ve already spoken in court. You have all understood since the beginning,” he said, referring to the media. “I’ll let the public decide.”
Mr. Sokha said their sudden release was as much a surprise to them as it was to everyone else and that they were told that they would be set free only moments before they left the prison.
He said the Supreme Court had been scheduled to decide on their latest of many bail requests on Wednesday but had postponed its announcement until July 5.
Mr. Soksan, a deputy head of monitoring for Adhoc, thanked the many players behind the public campaign calling for their release.
“It encourages me to be more brave and continue to do my job in order to make sure that our people receive rights and freedom, free from the abuse of powerful people,” he said.
Contacted by telephone, municipal court director Taing Sunlay said Judge Chan Piseth decided to release the five because his investigation was over and in consideration of their purported ill health.
“Because the investigating judge finished his investigation into the case and because they fell sick and collapsed, they were set free,” he said. “But their trial will proceed as normal.”
Mr. Sunlay said a trial date was pending.
Since the Adhoc 5’s arrest in April last year, Judge Chan Piseth twice extended their detentions, claiming he needed to keep them behind bars because the investigation was not yet over. The court announced that the investigation had wrapped up last week, paving the way for a trial.
Their detention has been deemed arbitrary by a U.N. working group, criticized by the U.N.’s human rights office and denounced by international rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
More than 50 local and international civil society groups have called for their immediate release, and political observers linked their detention to a broader crackdown by the ruling CPP on political opponents and civil society ahead of the commune elections earlier this month.
In April, the five were chosen as finalists for the Martin Ennals Award, considered to be the Nobel Prize for human rights.
And on Wednesday, more than 30 civil society organizations condemned what they alleged was the denial of medical care to the detainees. Three of them—Mr. Sokha, Mr. Vanda and Mr. Soksan—had experienced a severe decline in health during their imprisonment in Prey Sar, including Mr. Sokha collapsing in a prison bathroom, the organizations said in a joint statement.
(Reporting by Phan Soumy, Matt Surrusco, Chhorn Phearun, Hannah Hawkins, Van Roeun and Zsombor Peter)