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Tep Vanny
Land activist Tep Vanny is pictured outside a court hearing in Phnom Penh on January 22. Hong Menea

PM and Rainsy strike deal to release activists

Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy have negotiated the release of 10 land activists imprisoned over protests in November last year and also for a bail hearing next week for three monks, five opposition activists and another female prisoner, a Cambodia National Rescue Party lawyer said on Friday.

Announced a day after lawmakers approved the new bipartisan NEC, the “in principle’ agreement will see the 10 activists, most of them from Boeung Kak, pardoned and the remaining prisoners, including Cambodia National Rescue Party official Meach Sovannara, released following a bail hearing on Monday morning, according to Choung Choungy.

“This is a political compromise, because the political situation is improved,” the lawyer and CNRP lawmaker said.

“The top party leaders have [negotiated a] good solution so those [who] are detained politically [will be] released.”

Speaking on Friday, Rainsy confirmed that he had been “constantly” negotiating in an effort to secure their release, but refused to elaborate “on any deal”, saying he just “hoped and prayed” the prisoners would be released, adding “there is good will on the other side”.

However, analysts said the arrangement highlighted how the CPP wielded its influence over the court for political gain.

“Now that the NEC is done, I was expecting this,” said political analyst Ou Virak.

“We knew all along the arrests were used as a bargaining chip to pressure the CNRP into some sort of agreement… the CPP got what they want and they no longer need the prisoners as part of the deal… All of this goes to show how far we are from getting rule of law and judicial independence.”

CPP spokesman Chhim Phal Virun denied Hun Sen had pressured the courts, saying the Boeung Kak prisoners’ pardon was a “Khmer New Year gift” as the women had “accepted their guilt”.

He said the bail hearing of Sovannara and the four other CNRP supporters – who will still face “insurrection” charges over violent July protests in Freedom Park – was mere court procedure and unrelated to politics before adding: “The current political context has given benefits for Meach Sovannara’s group to be [granted] bail, because his group has not continued any activity that makes society more dangerous.”

“Therefore, it’s not about a political compromise between Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen that violates the judicial power, but it’s because of the political situation that both parties have implemented effectively through a culture of dialogue that will affect the positive result at court.”

Independent political commentator Chea Vannath said although she was happy the prisoners would be released, “Hun Sen claims that he cannot interfere in the judiciary while the action taken by the government is the opposite.”

According to Choungy, the Boeung Kak women - sentenced to a year in prison in November following a protest outside City Hall - will withdraw their appeals from the Supreme Court to pave the way for a royal pardon.

He said he had assured Boeung Kak representative Tep Vanny that the deal was “true”.

“She’s worried that she’ll be cheated,” he said.

Choungy said monk Soeun Hai, also convicted with the Boeung Kak women, would be pardoned on that charge but will still face a bail hearing on Monday together with Khmer Krom monks Khit Vannak and Sang Kosal, connected to charges the trio face over other protests.

Sovannara, already denied bail five times, and four other CNRP activists will also appear at the bail hearing along with Ly Seav Minh, who has been detained since last year over a land dispute in Toul Kork, according to Licadho’s Am Sam Ath, who said the group would be “released as a package”.

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