A day after Thai yellow-shirt activist Veera Somkwamkid was freed from prison in Cambodia by royal pardon, Thailand’s military junta declared its intention to release 14 Cambodian migrant workers imprisoned earlier this month for holding falsified visas, Thai media reported Wednesday.
Mr. Veera was set free on Tuesday during a visit from acting Thai Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow—the first high-level Thai official to travel to Cambodia since the overthrow of the Thai government last month. Mr. Veera left the country with the Thai delegation Wednesday morning.
The Cambodian government insisted that Mr. Veera’s release was a goodwill gesture and denied that freeing the Thai ultra-nationalist—who was sentenced to eight years in jail in 2010 for illegally crossing the Thai-Cambodian border and spying—had been part of a prisoner-swap deal.
Prime Minster Hun Sen did, however, appeal for the release of the 14 Cambodians on Tuesday during a meeting with Mr. Sihasak. And within hours of Mr. Veera touching down in Bangkok on Wednesday morning, acting Thai Justice Minister Chanchao Chaiyanukij announced the 14 workers would be freed “under the international prisoner transfer treaty based on reciprocity,” the Bangkok Post reported.
“Since they have not been prosecuted and therefore do not fall under the prisoner transfer conditions, Thailand could comply [with Cambodia’s request] by having the police drop the charges and send them back immediately,” Kobkiat Kasivivat, a deputy director general of the Corrections Department, was quoted as saying by the Bangkok Post.
Cambodian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said he had seen the story reported in the media but had not been informed by Thai authorities of the decision to release the migrant workers.
“I saw that the 14 Cambodians are to be released, but the ministry has not received any diplomatic or official notification from Thailand,” he said, adding that he welcomed the reported move as it signaled friendly relations with Thailand’s new military government.
“We do not wish for any Cambodian to become a victim, but as Prime Minister Hun Sen has already said, the relationship between our countries stays the same,” Mr. Kuong said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said his organization was not aware that any official prisoner swap had occurred, but added that both releases were good news.
“It’s not clear that the Cambodian migrants were anything more than scapegoats since [recruitment] brokers play fast and loose with documents,” he said. “It’s good that they have been released since no one should be criminalized for simply migrating to find work.”
Mr. Robertson said that Mr. Veera had long been a focal point of Thai-Cambodian relations, as successive Thai governments tried and failed to secure his release since he was jailed on seemingly spurious espionage charges after crossing into a no-man’s land area along the border.
“He should have never been jailed in the first place,” he said.