JAILED newspaper editor Hang Chakra is to be released from prison during the round of Royal pardons coinciding with the upcoming Khmer New Year holiday, as are 75 other prisoners from across the Kingdom, an official at the Ministry of Interior said Wednesday.
Heng Hak, director general of the Ministry’s Department of Prisons, said that he has forwarded a short list of 404 pardon candidates to the Ministry of Justice, adding that the government had already singled Hang Chakra out for a pre-holiday pardon.
“Hang Chakra is separate – he is a special case because he wrote a letter apologising to Prime Minister Hun Sen, so he will be released before Khmer New Year,” he said.
Hang Chakra, editor-in-chief of the opposition-aligned Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, was sentenced to one year in prison last June after he was convicted of spreading disinformation in a series of stories accusing officials of corruption. On July 8, he wrote to Hun Sen stating that he “repeatedly failed to act properly and seriously” while at the helm of the paper, and pledged to cease publication if he was released.
King Norodom Sihamoni traditionally offers pardons to prisoners on four occasions each year: Khmer New Year, Visak Bochea Day, the Water Festival and the King’s birthday.
Heng Hak said he has recommended that 75 of the 404 inmates – including eight women – be released from prison, with the remainder to receive reduced sentences.
He noted that prisoners must have served two-thirds of their sentences to be eligible for release, and one-third of their sentences to be eligible for a sentence reduction.
When contacted Wednesday, Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) spokesman Yim Sovann said he had not yet been informed of the pending pardon, but said it would be a positive development, albeit one long overdue.
“Hang Chakra has done nothing wrong – he expressed his opinion, he expressed his ideas through his writing,” he said. “He should have received an amnesty from the King a long time ago.”
He also called on the King to grant pardons to other government critics serving prison terms, including two Svay Rieng villagers who were jailed in January after joining SRP president Sam Rainsy in uprooting border demarcation posts along the Vietnamese border.
“All of them should be granted amnesties, including the two people in Svay Rieng, because what they have done they have done for the interests of the country,” he said.
Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said a Royal pardon for Hang Chakra could signal an enhancement of freedom of expression in Cambodia.
“We applaud this kind of pardon,” he said. “I think freedom of expression should be improved from now on in order to reduce the fear among journalists of being put in jail or punished for disinformation.”
Although there is still a “long way” to go, Thun Saray said, the country’s long-term outlook is good. “You can see the trend in general could be improving from one period of time [to the next],” he said.
Chat Sineang, the chief of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, said he writes a letter to the King before each of the four traditional holidays seeking pardons and sentence reductions, adding that 26 names were on Prey Sar’s list for this Khmer New Year. “Normally we get a result after the Khmer New Year,” he said.
Pov Buntheoun, director of the Justice Ministry’s Criminal Department, said he was preparing a document containing the names of the prisoners for the government to review before it is sent to the Royal Palace.
“I see Hang Chakra is on the suggestion list, but we cannot force the King to move quickly for us, so we have to wait,” he said. “When I get a result from the Royal Palace, I will be in a hurry to pass it to the court.”
Oum Daravuth, a member of the Royal Cabinet, declined to comment Wednesday.