Self-Exiled Activist Says PM to Help Him Return

Moeung Sonn, a self-exiled political activist found guilty of disinformation in July 2009 over claims that a lighting installation on Angkor Wat would damage the temple, said Monday that Prime Minister Hun Sen has vowed to help secure his free return to Cambodia.

While the assertion could not be confirmed by the government, opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who cohosted a public meeting with Mr. Hun Sen in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday, said he personally witnessed the exchange between Mr. Sonn and the prime minister.

“It was at the end of the meeting with the Cambodian migrant workers. The meeting was over, and as I was accompanying Hun Sen to his car on his way to his hotel…and Moeung Sonn was hoping to see Hun Sen, knowing that he was around,” Mr. Rainsy said Monday.

“Hun Sen passed by and Moeung Sonn saluted him. Hun Sen recognized him immediately, and said, ‘Moeung Sonn, why don’t you come back to Cambodia?’”

Mr. Rainsy said that Mr. Sonn explained that he could not return due to the criminal conviction against him.

“Hun Sen said, ‘No problem. I will organize for you to be pardoned by the king,’” he said.

Mr. Sonn, speaking by telephone from Thailand, gave a similar account of the exchange.

“Samdech Hun Sen asked, ‘Where do you live? You’re aged 68 —now it’s time for you to return home,’” Mr. Sonn said.

“Samdech Hun Sen asked me, ‘What is the court case?’” Mr. Sonn continued, saying that he told the prime minister that his case had long ago been closed with a guilty verdict.

“The court case is finished? I will help you because you are aged 68,” Mr. Sonn quoted Mr. Hun Sen as saying.

“Before, I dared not to meet Samdech Hun Sen because I was afraid he would blame me,” Mr. Sonn added. “But when I met with him, he showed his feelings were like he pitied me.”

The president of the Khmer Civilization Foundation and a former opposition lawmaker candidate, Mr. Sonn claimed at a May 2009 press conference that heat from a lighting installation set up on Angkor Wat would damage the temple.

The comment led government lawyer Pal Chandara to file a complaint with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court alleging that Mr. Sonn had defamed the government, and the activist was found guilty of disinformation.

The charges against Mr. Sonn, who fled to France, were later changed to incitement during an appeal process that upheld his two-year jail sentence.

Since the initial verdict, the activist has not attempted to return to Cambodia.

“I would be very happy if I could return home,” Mr. Sonn said Monday. “We have been waiting for six years…. I will wait for an official royal pardon to be released.”

Neither Eang Sophalleth nor Sry Thamrong, two assistants to Mr. Hun Sen, could be reached Monday. Mr. Chandara, the government lawyer, who also serves as an adviser to the prime minister, said he had not heard about the promise to allow the activist’s return.

“It is the decision of the prime minister,” Mr. Chandara said.

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