Cambodia will release up to 500 prisoners, including the assistant of Thai nationalist Veera Somkwamkid, from jails around the country during a four-day period in early February when the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk will be cremated in Phnom Penh, the Justice Minister said on Friday.
During a Bar Association meeting in Phnom Penh, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vattana said Mr. Veera, who is serving eight years in prison on espionage charges, will have his sentence reduced by six months, and that his assistant, Ratree Pipattanapaiboon, will be set free on February 1.
“We already arranged for the two Thais. [Prime Minister] Hun Sen asked to release Ms. Ratree on February 1…and we reduced the imprisonment of Mr. Veera by six months, because he has nearly completed one-third of his imprisonment,” Mr. Vattana said.
“On February 4, the Ministry of Interior will take the prisoners to join the King’s cremation day,” he said, adding that about 500 people in total would be considered for either early release or a sentence reduction.
Mr. Veera and Ms. Ratree were sentenced to eight and six years, respectively in December 2010, for spying, entering the country illegally, and entering a restricted military area in Banteay Meanchey province after being arrested in December 2010.
In November, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra intervened on their behalf, personally asking Mr. Hun Sen to review their cases. On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry said the Justice Ministry would do so.
“Some other Thai prisoners are in jail, and I think we will consider reducing the duration of their imprisonment,” Mr. Vong Vattana said.
Asked whether those set to be pardoned included popular radio station owner Mam Sonando, who is serving a 20-year sentence for fomenting a supposed secessionist movement in Kratie province, and opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who is currently in self-imposed exile to avoid a sentence of 11 years for incitement and damage of public property, Mr. Vong Vattana said it would not be possible.
“We only release those whose cases are no longer in the court system. The judicial procedures have not yet ended for Mam Sonando and if Rainsy was in jail, we would consider [a pardon],” he said.
He added that those who would be considered for a pardon included prisoners who have served two-thirds of their sentence, who have been well-behaved, and who are older than 60. Sick inmates and prisoners with children inside their cell will also be considered.
Justice Ministry spokesman Sam Pracheameanith said he was unsure whether political prisoners would be included among those set to be pardoned.
“I don’t know whether political prisoners will be included or not,” he said. “But all the prisoners who serve one-third will gain a reduction, and two-thirds served will gain amnesty.”
While rights groups and U.S. President Barack Obama have called on Cambodia to release all political prisoners, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that the courts act independently and that it is not Mr. Hun Sen]’s job to intervene.
Asked why the case of the Thai nationals was different, he replied: “These two cases are completely different. One is internal. One is international. Those people have been in jail already. This one is according to good relation and cooperation and in Cambodian national interest.”
(Additional reporting by Kaing Menghun and Lauren Crothers)