Last Two Convicts in Anti-Thai Riots Freed

Ken Sara and Thorn Veasna quietly stepped out of Prey Sar prison Wednesday afternoon, the last of those convicted for participating in the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots to be freed from jail.

King Norodom Sihanouk pardoned the students last week after a Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge declared them guilty Sept 15 of instigating racism that stoked the riots. Thorn Veasna, 19, and Ken Sara, 24, were due for release in October and November.

Ken Sara was also found guilty of inciting violence and illegally demonstrating.

Ken Sara’s relatives and fellow political activists arrived at Prey Sar prepared for a celebration. The men sprayed shaken cans of beer over Ken Sara and Thorn Veasna’s heads and doused them with a mixture of water, garlic and lemon, offering their first bath as free men.

“The only thing I thought about was being free,” Ken Sara said of his six-month detention.

The fourth-year Faculty of Law student, a member of the Stu­dents’ Movement for Democracy, said he did little more than think in his cell. Prison officials, who Ken Sara said he paid to leave him alone, rarely allowed him to walk around the compound.

“They didn’t want me to talk to other political prisoners,” he said. Ken Sara and Thorn Veasna, a Norton University student, were imprisoned in separate cells with more than 10 men, they said.

Thorn Veasna, gaunt with a budding mustache, looked like a boy next to the portly Ken Sara. No friends or relatives were waiting for Thorn Veasna as he pushed through the prison doorway, but a carload of Students’ Movement members embraced him like a long-lost friend.

“I want to thank Ken Sara,” he said later.

Stuffed into a Toyota Camry with US license plates, the men drove to Wat Sleng in Dangkao dis­trict, where Ken Sara and Thorn Veasna changed into saffron robes to be blessed by a monk.

The two were then driven to the Students’ Movement for Democracy headquarters, where they listened to reports of their release on a shortwave radio.

The release of the two men appeared stalled earlier this week, when Prosecutor Sok Roeun said the King’s pardon had not passed his desk. Human rights groups and Ken Sara’s lawyer feared government officials would postpone the release until after the Pchum Ben holiday, close to their official release date.

Um Sam An, former president for the Students’ Movement for Democracy, said Sunday that the release was slowed by extortion from court and prison officials. He said Wednesday that no money was paid to free the prisoners.

Naly Pilorge of the human rights group Licadho lauded the government for doing its job.

“It’s great to hear that the relevant ministries involved took the King’s amnesty seriously and released them before the end of Pchum Ben,” she said.

Pilorge criticized the judicial system for detaining Ken Sara and Thorn Veasna longer than six months before their trial.

Licadho documented hundreds of pretrial detentions longer than six months in 2001 and 2002, Pilorge said.

“It’s a real problem,” she said, noting repeated offenses in Phnom Penh and Banteay Mean­chey province. In the current judicial system, money and political pressure are the only assurances of a timely release, Pilorge said.

Ken Sara said he would consider taking action against the court for his long detainment. Thorn Veasna said he has no plans to press the issue and just wants to return to classes.

Ken Sara and Thorn Veasna declared again that they were innocent victims of a government coverup, and said Prime Minister Hun Sen was more culpable than they were.

Pilorge said, “We were ex­tremely skeptical about the legitimacy about the accusation and the charge. What we saw was that they were used as scapegoats.”

Ken Sara said he will maintain a low profile in Cambodia but is considering touring Singapore and France to talk about his confinement.


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