A group of 15 opposition-affiliated prisoners appealed to the government for Khmer New Year pardons on Thursday, despite the prime minister’s insistence that no more politicians will be offered such reprieves.
It is customary for the King to pardon prisoners during Khmer New Year, which begins April 14, usually at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Mao Monyvann, one of three former CNRP parliamentarians who visited the former opposition prisoners on Thursday at Prey Sar, said they were deserving of pardons.
“Some of the prisoners have served two-thirds and they have a final verdict. It is enough to pardon them so they can return to their families for Khmer New Year,” Monyvann said.
Former opposition Senator Um Sam An and 13 others were among those visited by Monyvann, Ou Chanrath and Kong Kimhak. One of the petitioners, former National Assembly candidate Meach Sovannara, was barred from visitations for allegedly communicating with the outside world from prison.
Sam An, a dual American citizen, was arrested in April 2016 for sharing mistranslated border documents on Facebook. Fellow senator, French-Cambodian Hong Sok Hour, was arrested for the same crime in August 2015 but was released early last year.
The others were arrested for leading or participating in “an insurrectionary movement” due to their involvement in a 2014 opposition protest that turned violent.
Human rights group Licadho previously labelled the 15 “political prisoners”. Its website has since rebranded them “prisoners of interest”.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved in November of last year, following an accusation that the party was attempting to topple the government. Then-party president Kem Sokha was arrested in September for treason.
In March, Hun Sen said pardons would not be forthcoming for Sokha or Sam An. A few weeks later, he extended this promise to all CNRP prisoners.
“I won’t pardon for anyone. Be informed. It’s ended,” he said.
Despite this, Chanrath, the former CNRP lawmaker, still pleaded for mercy on behalf of the men, many of whom were youth activists at the time of their arrests.
“Most of them are young and they are not cruel people who killed or robbed anyone,” he said. “They are just prisoners of conscience.”
Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling party, said the government would not fall for the CNRP’s “trap”.
“He pardoned Hong Sok Hour because he recognised his mistake,” he said. “Then the opposition says it is because of political pressure.”
After Sok Hour’s release, former opposition leader Sam Rainsy claimed the government relented under pressure from the French, which caused Hun Sen to bristle. Both the French Embassy and Sok Hour himself have declined to confirm.
Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Thailand’s Naresuan University, said it was clear that Hun Sen intended to “bury” all opposition.
“Even after the upcoming election, Hun Sen will likely refrain from pardoning jailed opponents as a warning to any future politicos who would dare to oppose him,” he said.