Prime Minister Hun Sen has refused a request from CNRP president Sam Rainsy and his deputy seeking pardons and releases for opposition members and rights workers charged or convicted in a recent spate of legal actions widely seen as politically motivated.
Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly arranged royal pardons for political opponents who his government has either locked up or driven abroad, including a few for Mr. Rainsy, but said earlier this year that another pardon for the opposition leader was out of the question.
Yem Ponhearith, a spokesman for the CNRP, said on Thursday that Mr. Rainsy and deputy party president Kem Sokha decided to ask anyway, hoping to take advantage of a relative lull in political tensions by entreating King Norodom Sihamoni directly.
Mr. Rainsy is once again living abroad, this time avoiding a two-year prison sentence for defaming Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong. Mr. Sokha was recently sentenced to five months in prison for refusing to appear as a witness in a “prostitution” case against his alleged mistress.
Mr. Sokha has been holed up in the CNRP headquarters appealing the conviction; however, he recently left briefly to register for next year’s commune elections. Both parties also made recent pledges to refrain from using heated language as part of a political “cease-fire.”
“We sent the letter to our king after His Excellency Kem Sokha was able to register and we saw that the political situation seemed to be better,” Mr. Ponhearith said.
Eighteen CNRP figures, including two lawmakers, have been jailed since May last year. A number of rights workers, including a former NGO worker-cum-electition official, have also been imprisoned.
In their letter, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha asked that the charges and convictions against them and the others be pardoned, “like your highness has pardoned before to bring an atmosphere of reconciliation and unity to the nation.”
The series of letters from the opposition, king and prime minister were all posted online on Thursday by the government-aligned Fresh News outlet.
King Sihamoni, who the Constitution gives final say over pardons, forwarded the request to Mr. Hun Sen in a letter dated Tuesday, saying he wanted him “to check” the requests.
Mr. Hun Sen replied to the king the next day, telling him he had no interest in requesting a pardon for any of them as the charges and convictions followed the courts’ proper “implementation of the law.”
“As the head of the Royal Government of Cambodia, I strongly believe in strengthening and promoting the rule of law through the effective and serious implementation of the law,” he said.
Such implementation is “the key factor to help the country be orderly, stable and secure, and especially to help democratic pluralism in Cambodia continue to run sustainably,” he wrote.
Mr. Hun Sen’s critics, however, accuse him of governing one of the most corrupt countries in the world and using the courts to beat his rivals either into submission or impotence.
Mr. Ponhearith of the CNRP said he remained hopeful that the opposition would eventually manage to negotiate an amnesty for the party figures and rights workers currently convicted or locked up.
“We still hope to solve the issues between Khmer and Khmer, to solve the political issues politically,” he said.
Despite his professed respect for the courts, Mr. Hun Sen has often shown himself ready to arrange royal pardons and release detainees as bargaining chips in negotiations with the opposition when it suits him.
He nodded to his power of pardon during a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh last month while talking about the CNRP’s legal troubles.
“When it’s out of the court’s hands and the verdict is put into effect, then it returns to the prime minister, and the Prison Law allows the prime minister to do this,” he said at the time.
The Prison Law gives the prime minister the “privilege” to ask the king for pardons “when necessary.”