Three members of the dissident Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM) serving sentences at Banteay Meanchey Provincial Prison have been pardoned, just days ahead of the scheduled return of the group’s self-exiled leader.
The pardon for Serey Bunlong, 29; Seng Sokmeng, 31; and Um Phirun, 27, which was seen yesterday, came last week at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen and was signed by acting head of state Say Chhum on Thursday.
All three were released the following day after spending more than two years behind bars.
The men had been arrested shortly before the July 2013 national election after handing out watches, radios, DVDs and T-shirts bearing the logo of the Khmer People Power Movement, which Hun Sen had dubbed a “terrorist” group and accused of training armed anti-government forces in Thailand.
They were convicted in January of conspiracy and obstructing electoral procedures and were handed sentences ranging from five to six years.
The trio’s release followed the official pardoning in July of the group’s leader, Sourn Serey Ratha, who had been convicted in absentia alongside them.
Serey Ratha, who has now officially created a political party, the Khmer Power Party (KPP), previously said his return to Cambodia hinged on the three men being freed.
KPP spokesman Tep Virak said last week’s quiet releases were part of “political negotiations” between the new party and the government.
“The government released our members secretly without letting us know. [But] this is part of the demands of the KPP president [Serey Ratha] before he returns to his homeland to run his new party,” he said.
Serey Ratha could not be reached for comment yesterday, but told the Post by email earlier this month that his plans had “not changed” and he would be returning to the Kingdom on the morning of October 1.
Speaking from his hometown in Battambang province yesterday, Sokmeng celebrated his new-found freedom but said he should never have been arrested in the first place.
“I am happy to be freed, but I’m disappointed that I was imprisoned when I didn’t do anything wrong. I only distributed gifts to people and I got arrested,” he said. “The trial was unjust for us.”
Sokmeng said that he was working in Thailand when he first met Serey Ratha, who offered him work distributing the “gifts”.
“I thought it’s not wrong to give gifts to people. I chose Takeo and Banteay Meanchey provinces to give gifts to whoever wanted them, and I got some money for my work,” he said.
He said he didn’t hold Serey Ratha responsible for his imprisonment and planned to come to Phnom Penh for the leader’s homecoming.
“I spent two years and two months in prison, and Sourn Serey Ratha and the KPPM always cared about my family. He never left us behind,” he said.
Political analyst Ou Virak yesterday said the men “should never have been convicted in the first place”.
But rather than an act of benevolence, their release was likely part of wider plans by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to take support away from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party ahead of the 2018 national election, he said.
Virak warned that the strategy could backfire if the opposition parties formed a coalition, which could give the CNRP “the boost they need”.
Officials at the Ministry of Justice could not be reached yesterday.