Ten imprisoned land-rights activists celebrated at CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha’s villa in Phnom Penh on Saturday afternoon after being released from jail following the end of political negotiations between the CPP and CNRP.
The activists, from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak community, were arrested and swiftly given yearlong prison sentences in November following a protest during which seven of the group blocked a road with a bed.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has repeatedly claimed that the arrests—along with those of eight separate CNRP officials and monks—were intended to push CNRP negotiators to back down in election-reform talks.
The claims were publicly denied by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who insisted that he did not have the power to interfere with the court system. However, the release of the 10 activists on Saturday came only two days after the parliament finalized its tasks in passing the negotiated electoral reforms.
Emerging from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison shortly after 3:30 p.m. on Saturday, the housing rights activists—Tep Vanny, Nget Khun, Song Sreyleap, Kong Chantha, Pan Chunreth, Bop Chorvy, Nong Sreng, Heng Pich, Im Srey Touch and Puong Sopheap—were embraced by about 100 of their relatives, community members and CNRP officials.
“The 10 of us are very happy to rejoin our families, especially our children, communities and organizations,” Ms. Vanny said Saturday. “We are innocent people and we suffered an injustice from the non-independent courts in Cambodia, which arrested and put us in prison for five months.”
Speaking by telephone Sunday, Ms. Vanny said the sequence of events since the CPP and CNRP ended their eight months of contentious negotiations on electoral reform on Thursday made clear that her arrest was political in nature.
“The Cambodian government is weak and cheap, as [Mr. Hun Sen] has no capability or power to compete with his competitor in a legitimate way, so he uses the cheapest tricks to hurt innocent people,” Ms. Vanny said. “We have been used as a political tool and put behind bars unjustly.”
Yet Ms. Vanny said that she hoped the CNRP did not back down to any electoral reform demands from the CPP in the hopes of letting her and the other activists out of jail.
“If the [new] National Election Committee that is being created is neutral and independent and not corrupt, our imprisonment was worthwhile and we are happy,” she said.
Song Sreyleap, another freed activist, said there was no doubt in her mind about the political nature of her arrest.
“We were political hostages for the negotiations over the NEC. After the NEC was created, we are released,” she said.
Independent political analyst Sok Touch said the 10 activists committed a minor legal infraction at a time when election reform talks were deadlocked, and had thus been treated severely as a way to show the CNRP that it had no leverage to keep making demands.
“When there are politicians trying to grab power from anywhere that they can, and the other side confronts them by using the court system, if any activists that break the law, [the government] will implement the law to show that they have the capability to confront their competitor,” he said.
CPP spokesman Chhim Phal Virun said Mr. Hun Sen had requested the pardon for the 10 activists, but said that the request had not come from political dealing, but from the fact that the women had behaved well in prison.
“Therefore, the court can ask the Ministry of Justice to look into it, and [the ministry] then reports to the prime minister so that he can use his right to ask the king to give a pardon to those who the court sees has improved,” he said.
“There is no political deal between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy concerning the release of the prisoners, because the release of the prisoners is the power of the courts.”
A separate bail hearing for the five imprisoned CNRP officials and three opposition-aligned monks is scheduled for today. Chuong Choungy, the CNRP’s lawyer in the case, said on Friday that the hearing would lead to the eight being released.