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Thai spies may be freed

130111 06
Thai Yellow Shirt supporter Ratree Pipattanapaiboon speaks to reporters at the capital’s Appeal Court in December of 2011. Photograph: Vireak Mai/Phnom Penh Post

A pair of Thai Yellow Shirt activists who have been in Prey Sar prison since December, 2010 may be set free next month — years ahead of their scheduled release date — at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“Ratree [Pipattanapaiboon] is likely to be released during the royal funeral, and for Veera [Somkwamkid], the prime minister requested the Minister of Justice to find a way to release him, to shorten the prison term,” Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said, adding that the request had come after “three or four” appeals from Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Activist Veera and Ratree, his secretary, were sentenced to eight and six years respectively after being convicted in February, 2011 on charges of espionage, illegal entry and entering a restricted military base.

The pair, who were arrested in Banteay Meanchey province while inspecting a border area claimed by Thailand, have repeatedly sought early release, royal pardons and swaps for Cambodian prisoners in Thailand.

According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hun Sen yesterday “instructed the Minister of Justice to consider the following, on the occasion of the Royal Cremation of His Majesty [Norodom Sihanouk] . . .  1. To reduce the duration of imprisonment for Mr Veera Somkwamkid, which could lead to a pardon in the future. 2. To pardon Ms Ratree Pipattanapaiboon on February 4.”  The statement goes on to say that the matter is being considered by the Justice Ministry and will be decided “very soon”.

It also explains that the instructions followed two recent requests from Yingluck  —  the first at ASEAN, the second just yesterday.

“I think this [act] reflects the really good relationship between the two countries,” Thai ambassador Touchayoot Pakdi said.

Once icy, relations between the two countries have thawed considerably since the June, 2011 election of Yingluck and the Cambodia-friendly Pheu Thai party. But as tensions have eased at the border and the clashes over territory surrounding Preah Vihear have faded into memory, the situation within Thailand has grown increasingly fraught.

As an April International Court of Justice hearing over the border territory draws near, the anti-government Yellow Shirts have threatened criminal lawsuits and urged the Thai premier to defy the ruling, should it fall in Cambodia’s favour.

While officials were mum yesterday on the implications of releasing Veera and Ratree amid Thailand’s widening political gyre, analysts said such a move would buy a measure of stability for both countries.

“With the ICJ verdict pending in the Preah Vihear case, there could be some … backlash in Thailand and reaction from the Yellow Shirts, which could have implications for Yingluck,” said political analyst Lao Mong Hay.

“Perhaps Cambodia’s goodwill gesture could stabilise or at least help maintain goodwill from the Yellow Shirts.”

Manasvi Srisodapol, director general of the information department at Thailand’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, said he couldn’t speculate on the motives or potential effects. “What I can say is that it’s certainly a very welcome gesture from the government of Cambodia,” he said, noting Yingluck had offered similar public thanks.

While treated like a done deal by many, the Justice Ministry was still examining the proposal as of yesterday afternoon, said cabinet chief Sam Pracheameanith.

“It is too early to make a decision today, but officials at the ministry have been examining the aspect of the law and humanitarian implications, and they will decide before sending the letter back to the premier,” he said.

Should the pardon go through, it would likely take some legal wrangling. According to the law, and as cited by Cambodian officials repeatedly when turning down past requests by Thai authorities, royal pardons require that two-thirds of the sentence be served.

If an application for an amnesty or a reduced term is sent to the palace, said Prince Sisowath Thomico, the king would “100 per cent sign it in accordance to the premier’s request”.  

Doing so would be wise, said political scientist Carlyle Thayer.

“It was a shrewd decision because it removed a potential irritant in advance of the ICJ decision and demonstrated that it is possible for the two national leaders ... to do business with each other,” said Thayer, professor emeritus at the University of New South Wales.

But, he cautioned, the release would be unlikely to staunch a tide of nationalism. “Too much should not be made of the Royal Pardon ... The ICJ decision is sure to flame past animosities.”

To contact the reporters on this story:Abby Seiff at abby.seiff@phnompenhpost.com

 

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