Prime Minister Hun Sen blamed opposition activists for an attack on his motorcade in 1998 in order to curb the Sam Rainsy Party’s growing popularity in the northwest, the newly released Sok Yoeun said on Wednesday.
Speaking by telephone from Finland after spending four years in a Thai prison, Sok Yoeun said his arrest was a political ploy and that he would return home to Cambodia, despite an outstanding warrant for his arrest on allegations that he tried to assassinate Hun Sen.
“No matter what happens, I will come back to Cambodia. Cambodia is not Hun Sen’s country. It is also my country,” he said. “I will come back.”
Sok Yoeun, a political refugee, was released from prison last week and flown to Finland, where several of his relatives have been granted asylum. His release comes more than four years after he was arrested in December 1999 in Thailand on illegal immigration charges.
When his six-month detention period expired, he stayed in jail, while Cambodia and Thailand bargained for his extradition and trial for allegedly masterminding a B-40 rocket attack in September 1998 in Siem Reap, which missed the prime minister’s car but killed a 15-year-old bystander.
Citing a humanitarian streak, Hun Sen dropped the extradition request in January.
His voice steady and strong, despite the lung, liver and heart ailments that he says befell him in prison, Sok Yoeun said the CPP had made up the allegations against him.
As a Sam Rainsy Party activist, “I was gaining popularity in Battambang province. That’s why the CPP tried to arrest me many times, but they never had an excuse. Only when Hun Sen was attacked did they have an excuse to arrest me,” he said.
The CPP has denied allegations from Amnesty International and local human rights groups, as well as the Sam Rainsy Party, that the arrests of Sok Yoeun and two other opposition activists for the attack were political. The two other men were released after six months in a Cambodian military jail and also granted asylum.
Sok Yoeun, now 59 years old, described how he evaded arrest in Cambodia and found brief refuge at a friend’s house in Bangkok. Contacts in the military and military police warned him that he was wanted by the authorities, who arrived at his Siem Reap home only a few hours after he had packed a few belongings and fled to Banteay Meanchey province.
After two days hiding there, Sok Yoeun trekked two hours from Poipet to a porous border crossing and entered Thailand. He then hired a taxi to Bangkok.
There, he met a friend and opposition party sympathizer who housed him for about two months, before Thai police discovered him and took him into custody.
In prison, he said, his health deteriorated, and he was barred from reading newspapers or listening to radio news reports. Sam Rainsy Party activists visited him three times a month, he said.
He said he never lost hope that he would one day be free, even as several extradition hearings prolonged his detention. Opposition activists were arguing at the time that his transfer to Cambodian custody would mean certain death.
“I was not afraid. I always had to hope that Thailand would provide me justice,” Sok Yoeun said.
Sok Yoeun said he is planning to develop a Sam Rainsy Party branch in Finland and raise funds for the party. He will head to other European countries in the coming months to meet with opposition members abroad, and he said he is overwhelmed with the media’s interest in his story.
But mingled with the joy of newfound freedom, he said, is the concern for the family and country he left behind. He said he could only be truly happy in Cambodia, with all of his family, in safety.
“Yes, I am in Finland, but I feel like I am happy only 60 percent,” he said.