After serving more than 800 days of a seven-year prison sentence on charges of “incitement” and “forgery”, former opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour was released last night, following an unexpected royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni.
Sok Hour, at the time a senator from the then-Sam Rainsy Party, was arrested in August 2015 and sentenced in November 2016 for allegedly posting a “fake” border treaty between Cambodia and Vietnam on Facebook. Rainsy, who was opposition leader at the time, was named as an accomplice.
The treaty in question appeared to show National Assembly President Heng Samrin agreeing to “dissolve” Cambodia’s border with Vietnam. Sok Hour claimed to have found the document online, while Rainsy maintained there were translation errors, with the word “dissolve” mistakenly replacing the word “redefine”.
Sok Hour – a dual French and Cambodian citizen – was stripped of his parliamentary immunity, on the grounds he was caught committing a crime in flagrante delicto – or “in the act” – and languished in pretrial detention for more than a year.
“His fair trial rights which he was entitled to, like anyone in Cambodia, irrespective of his political opinion – were clearly violated,” Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), said yesterday.
A Fresh News article announcing his pardon also featured a conciliatory letter written by Sok Hour to Prime Minister Hun Sen. Signed September 4 – the day after the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of “treason” – it concludes with a request for pardon.
“As a Cambodian citizen, I have only one wish, to follow the Samdech’s government policy . . . to ensure that the country is in national reconciliation in order to protect the territory and maintain a good relationship with neighbouring countries,” the letter reads.
“I regret that I committed a mistake against [Hun Sen’s] policy on the border issue by using incorrect documents leading to public confusion . . . From now on I will be more cautious not to let this problem happen again.”
Surprised opposition figures welcomed the news, and dismissed the possibility of Sok Hour having struck a political deal with the premier.
“We are happy with that,” said CNRP chief whip and acting spokesman Son Chhay yesterday, who had only heard about the pardon after it was reported in the media.
When asked if he was concerned about a possible backroom deal, Chhay asked for patience. “I do not know, let me meet with him,” he said.
Rainsy, meanwhile, insisted Sok Hour’s release was a result of “international pressure” and that it would not be “an isolated incident”.
“The tide starts to turn in Cambodia,” he said via email, calling for the release of “all political prisoners”.
Not everyone was as optimistic, however, including CCHR’s Sopheap, who called attention to the country’s other prisoners, serving time on convictions questioned as political in nature.
“Let’s not forget the dozen[s] of others who are still in jail and more generally, the very worrisome situation of human rights in the country,” Sopheap said, adding that the timing of the decision does raise questions.
“The context in which his royal pardon was requested and granted does give rise to suspicions as to whether it is politically motivated.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan lauded the premier’s generosity, though according to him the pardon was made possible because Sok Hour had apologised.
“The prime minister has compassion, not only for CPP members, but also to the general people. Although they may have opposition political tendencies, the Samdech still has mercy for them,” Eysan said.
“Even when he files a complaint against anyone, he is crying. I am not joking.”Speaking to reporters outside the prison yesterday evening, Sok Hour said he had written to the prime minister to express his regret at his actions.
“Frankly, seeing this tense situation I didn’t expect much understanding,” he said.He said he was unsure about whether he would return to politics.“Now I am a simple citizen and I will continue to think,” he said, adding his first concern was to cure an unspecified illness.
But he was hopeful that more prisoners would be freed in the coming months.
“I believe in the future there will be more cases of compromise to release more of our people,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean and Chhay Channyda