Passage to a neutral third country has been arranged for jailed Sam Rainsy Party activist Sok Yoeun, but the 1998 Siem Reap rocket attack suspect could remain in a Thai prison indefinitely while the Thai and Cambodian governments wrangle over his extradition.
Sok Yoeun, an opposition party member from Battambang, and Sar Sophoan, who heads the party’s Bangkok office, are both nearing the end of six-month jail sentences in Thailand for immigration violations.
With the anticipated release of the pair, opposition party leader Sam Rainsy has been pushing the UN to arrange passage for the men to a third country rather than face possible criminal prosecution upon returning to Cambodia.
“If they are not accepted by a third country at the time of their release, their situation will indeed become very difficult….Will they be tragically sent back to Cambodia?” Sam Rainsy wrote in a May 11 letter to Francois Fouinat, director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Asia Pacific office in Geneva.
Fouinat wrote back Monday that UNHCR had “urgently identified a resettlement country for Mr Sok Yoeun….This option remains available and can be utilized at any moment.”
But Cambodia’s outstanding extradition request, submitted to the Thai government late last year shortly after Sok Yoeun’s arrest, remains a hurdle, Fouinat wrote.
“…While Mr Sok Yoeun’s prison sentence for violations of the Thai immigration act will be concluded next month, he will be obliged to remain in Thailand (presumably in detention) until the termination of the extradition process,” Fouinat wrote.
Sam Rainsy said Thursday this will be used by his opponents to further harass his party.
“It sends a distressing message to the opposition that no one can protect you if you are accused falsely. This is a way for [Prime Minister] Hun Sen to put pressure on us,” Sam Rainsy said.
UNHCR didn’t say what country is willing to take the aging party member and his family.
No mention has been made yet of what will happen to Sar Sophoan following his release. The Bangkok Post reported a UN official as saying he is less likely to get third-country passage be-cause of his younger age.
Sar Sophoan was arrested for harboring Sok Yoeun, who fled to Thailand late last year after being accused of orchestrating the September 1998 rocket attack in Siem Reap that the government claims was an attempt on Hun Sen’s life.
Sok Yoeun’s presence in Thailand sparked the Cambodian government’s first extradition attempt, but the Thai government’s refusal to return him outright cast doubt on Cambodia’s claims that he was responsible for the rocket attack.
After escaping to Thailand following a roundup of rocket attack suspects—mostly Sam Rainsy Party members from Battambang—Sok Yoeun was granted “person of concern” status by the UNHCR while the Thai government waited for evidence to arrive from Cambodia justifying his extradition.
It is unclear what evidence the Cambodian government gave to support that request.
Both government officials and Thai Embassy personnel said this week they did not know the status of Cambodia’s extradition request.
Sam Rainsy leaders continue to claim the rocket attack has been used by Hun Sen supporters to justify further harassment of opposition party members.
Two other party activists arrested in connection with the attack, Kong Bun Heang and Mung Davuth, were released from Phnom Penh’s military prison after six months when no formal charges were filed against them.
Yet the optimism that followed their release has turned to suspicion, with Sam Rainsy calling the government’s move a “trap.”
“It sends a confusing message to the Thai government that Sok Yoeun doesn’t risk any danger by coming back,” Sam Rainsy said. “The three could be re-arrested as soon as Sok Yoeun re-enters the country.”