Phoin Sroeurn (L) holds his five-year-old daughter Sroeurn Theary after being released from Prey Sar prison yesterday along with fellow ‘co-conspirators’ Touch Rin and Chan Sovann. Photograph: Abby Seiff/Phnom Penh Post
Four days after their alleged co-conspirator, Mam Sonando, stepped out of jail to the joyful shouts of hundreds of his supporters, Touch Rin, Chan Sovann and Phoin Sroeurn followed.
As the three strode out of Prey Sar’s Correctional Centre I yesterday, neither cheers nor screams greeted them. Instead, what lay before them were quiet exclamations of disbelief and gratitude.
With barely a word, Rin and Sroeurn swooped down to pick up their young daughters and held them as they thumb-printed their exit papers.
“Chan Sovann, sok sabay,” a grinning police officer said, handing over the documents. Their lawyers clapped them on the backs, their wives smiled shyly, their daughters bounced in their arms and – just like that – tragedy over.
Ten months ago to the day, these men were ripped away from their homes and thrown in jail, accused of helping plot a secessionist movement. The arrest came just three days after they and hundreds of their neighbours were driven from their homes in Kratie province’s remote Pro Ma village. During the violent mass eviction, police gunned down a 14-year-old girl.
The authorities insisted such force was necessary to staunch a dangerous separatist movement; rights groups maintained it was a veiled crackdown on a group of residents locked in a long-standing land dispute.
In October, the three men, along with independent radio station owner Sonando – who by then had been branded the ringleader of a secession movement in a place he’d never visited – were convicted on charges related to insurrection. Sentenced to 20 years in prison, the 71-year-old Sonando rapidly became a cause célèbre. He was branded a prisoner of conscience, had his release pushed for by heads of state and was nominated for a human rights award.
Even for the most optimistic among them, what happened yesterday did not fall within the realm of possibility. Released just 10 months into their sentences after the Appeal Court shortened the sentences of Rin and Sovann, the men offered mixed appraisals. They are thrilled to be out. They are angry they remain guilty as charged in the eyes of the court.
“I cannot just stay silent on my case, because otherwise, they will say that I am admitting my guilt,” said Rin, adding that he would discuss with his lawyer whether he could appeal the decision. As he spoke to a reporter, his older daughter, six-year-old Rin Chanthy, leaned against him. Throughout the morning, anywhere Rin went, anytime he spoke, Chanthy stayed by his side – one slight hand around his waist.
“What the court did does not surprise me,” he said at one point. “You know what surprises me? My other daughter. When I was arrested, she was just two months old.
Now she is a year old and doesn’t recognise me as her father. When I played with her, she started crying.”
At yesterday’s release, just a small coterie of NGO-provided lawyers and local rights activists greeted the men. Among them were Sonando and his wife.
After receiving an exuberant embrace from Sovann, Sonando called the outcome a gift from the gods.
“If the human being has no eyes, the god has eyes. That is why they got released today. They did good, and they received good back.”
Like Sonando, both Rin and Sovann are considering appealing “for the sake of justice”.
But despite the claim, they seemed eager for a return to normalcy. Yesterday, though rights groups had provided funds for another day in Phnom Penh, all three asked to go directly from Prey Sar to the bus station.
At Wat Ang Metrey, located just next to the prison, the men – who had never known one another before this ordeal began – squeezed alongside one another as a monk and a layman began pouring water over their heads.
As they scrubbed the water into their skin, letting it drip off them and over their daughters’ heads, the monk began to intone in Pali.
“May the bad luck be washed away. May everything be good from today onwards.”
With assistance from Abby Seiff