Prime Minister Hun Sen signed a letter Thursday asking King Norodom Sihamoni to cut jailed opposition party member Cheam Channy’s seven-year prison sentence by more than half, Hun Sen’s adviser Om Yentieng said.
The move came on the eve of today’s one-year anniversary of Cheam Channy’s arrest and detention in military prison. He was found guilty in August of forming a so-called illegal armed force.
“Samdech [Hun Sen] signed a letter to take four years out of his seven-year prison term,” Om Yentieng said Thursday evening.
As Cheam Channy has already served one year of his sentence, the reduced sentence would be completed in 2008.
Om Yentieng said the decision was made out of sympathy for Cheam Channy’s family, and that further cuts to the sentence could be made.
“This is the first step. We can not reduce the prison term all at one time. I think the second step will come soon,” he said.
“[Hun Sen] pities the family. This is an exciting decision,” he added.
Acting Sam Rainsy Party President Kong Korm said the reduced sentence wouldn’t be perfect, but would demonstrate the government’s good intentions.
“We wanted to have a total pardon and restore his immunity in order to allow him to work, but this shows the good attitude of Samdech Prime Minister Hun Sen,” Kong Korm said.
Chum Sieng Lieng, Cheam Channy’s wife, said she would wait to comment until she had seen Hun Sen’s letter.
“I will write a thank you letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen after his letter becomes public,” she said.
Cheam Channy, a former opposition party lawmaker and a civilian, was on Aug 9 found guilty in the military court of forming an illegal secret army and of tricking people into buying positions in that army.
The day before, witnesses for the prosecution accused Cheam Channy of using them to recruit thousands of troops to overthrow the government.
Various rights organizations, as well as the US State Department and the European Union have condemned his detention. Both the US and the EU have said the court decision raised questions about the competence and independence of Cambodia’s judiciary system.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith could not be reached for comment. Like Kong Korm, others said they cautiously welcomed the move.
“We think this is a step in the right direction, however, we support the findings of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions that concluded his detention was illegal,” said Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho.
Speaking through his spokesman Jeff Daigle, US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said: “The leaders of the opposition and the ruling parties have spoken about the need to find a Cambodian solution, a solution amongst themselves, on this issue. This approach seems to be working, and we applaud their efforts from the sidelines.”
But opposition lawmaker Yim Sovann said the decision fell short.
“If you want to make the situation much better, don’t just decrease the sentence,” he said. “I think Cheam Channy is innocent. The King should grant a pardon and Cheam Channy should come back to work.”