It was not the hero’s welcome that greeted Mam Sonando when more than a thousand boisterous supporters cheered his release from Prey Sar prison on Friday and lifted the popular radio station owner onto their shoulders for an impromptu parade.
But for the three unheralded farmers caught up in the same allegations of rebellion that saw them convicted with Mr. Sonando in October in a court case denounced as baseless and political, their much quieter release from prison on Tuesday was just as sweet.
Touch Ream, who walked out a free man in slacks and an England T-shirt 10 months after his arrest, hugged his 6-year-old daughter to his side.
“I am so happy to see her,” the father of two said. “What I missed most was my family and my daughters.”
Along with fellow villagers Kan Sovann and Phorn Sroeun, Mr. Ream was arrested in May and soon charged with taking up Mr. Sonando’s alleged call for an armed rebellion against the local authorities in rural Kratie province.
Like Mr. Sonando, who came to greet the men on their release, all three had denied the charges against them.
And like Mr. Sonando, Mr. Ream and Mr. Sovann last week had the remainder of their prison sentences—five and three years, respectively—suspended to time already served by the Appeal Court. Mr. Sroeun, who was sentenced to only 10 months in jail, chose not to appeal.
Though grateful for his freedom, Mr. Ream vowed to appeal to have his conviction overturned, and prove his innocence.
“I’m very happy to walk out, but not completely, because it is still not justice. I did nothing wrong,” Mr. Ream said moments after his release.
He also said he would not forget the day that hundreds of armed members of the government’s security forces raided his village, Broma, in mid-May.
On the morning of May 16, some 200 armed soldiers and police stormed the village on the grounds of putting down the armed rebels ensconced in Broma.
The only victim that day was a 14-year-old girl fatally shot by the security forces, a death the government chose not to investigate because it was an “accident.”
“When I close my eyes, I still remember that day,” Mr. Ream said with a slight shake.
At their appeal hearing, Mr. Ream and Mr. Sovann confessed to helping monitor a makeshift roadblock on the village outskirts but insisted they were only protesting against a local rubber plantation, which many of them accused of grabbing their farmland.
Some have accused the authorities of carrying out a mass eviction from Broma on the grounds of the so-called insurrection, but in practice, they claim, the issue was the villagers’ agitation against the rubber company.
Human rights groups rebuked their original trial by Phnom Penh Municipal Court in September for relying on the testimony of a few arrested villagers who all had their prison sentences immediately suspended after testifying against Mr. Sonando. The groups also rebuked the appeal hearing for not having any of those same “witnesses” on hand to be questioned by the defense despite being summoned.
“The ruling of the Appeal Court was no victory for justice,” rights group Adhoc, which furnished the men with their defense lawyer, said in a statement on Tuesday. “Touch Ream and [Kan] Sovann remain convicted of crimes which no evidence supports and have lost 10 months of their lives.”
Upon their release, the three men stopped at a nearby pagoda, offered up a bunch of bananas and a bouquet of flowers, and had a monk wash away any lingering bad spirits. And with nothing to hold them in Phnom Penh, they were in a minivan headed back to Broma by noon.
During a brief stop—just before leaving Phnom Penh—at the offices of local rights group Licadho, which brought the men food during their prison stint and arranged visits with their families, Mr. Ream said he still feared arrest so long as his conviction stood.
Since the police raid on Broma, a handful of police have remained permanently stationed just outside the village in a newly constructed post.
But Mr. Ream said he had no plans to leave the village.
“We will stay in Broma because that is where our land is,” he said.