K ING Norodom Sihanouk retreated from granting a mass amnesty to "all but the
most dangerous of criminals" held in Cambodia's rudimentary jails because he
claims the issue had become tainted with politics.
A statement dated October 26 explaining the King's change of heart referred pointedly
to Prince Norodom Sirivudh who was exiled late last year after being accused of plotting
to kill Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
"As for my brother Norodom Sirivudh, I didn't request for any prerogative from
the Royal Government...," an unofficial translation of the statement read, fueling
speculation that Sirivudh's return to Cambodia was perceived linked to the mass amnesty
and continues to be blocked by powerful elements within the Cambodian People's Party
"There was a group of students and politicians expressing their criticism towards
me...[and] I have no intention to fight, in political affairs, with any group,"
the King's statement read.
"...I, today, withdraw the request for liberation of those prisoners... I let
the Royal Government continue to keep them in prisons according to the desire of
In an October 18 statement, the King requested that the "most horrible and ignominious
jails" be destroyed and announced he would order the release of the "greatest
number of prisoners possible" on occasion of his birthday and Independence Day.
He said his request was consistent with the amnesty of Ieng Sary and the welcoming
of Khmer Rouge soldiers into the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) many of whom
had committed "grave and uncountable" crimes against innocent Cambodians
Sihanouk's proposal was publicly criticized on at least two occasions.
On October 24 National Police Chief Hok Lundy warned the move could spark a surge
in crime and retaliations against law enforcers. On the same day representatives
of student groups associated with CPP co-Prime Minister Hun issued a public letter
saying the move would endanger law abiding citizens.
First Prime Minister and Funcinpec leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh publicly supported
the King's initiative, but at press time Hun Sen had made no official response.
According to a Ministry of Interior source who requested anonymity, the King's original
decision threw officials into confusion as they attempted to prepare for the mass
release just weeks after the King announced his decision.
And, he added, a meeting of provincial governors, vice-governors, interior and police
officials held in Phnom Penh October 24 and 25, was divided along political lines
over what action to take.
"The Funcinpec officials said we must respect the King's wishes, no matter what.
The CPP officials said yes, we must respect the Kings wishes, but we must have a
procedure to follow. If we just let prisoners go without a proper procedure, we could
see the crime rate increase very badly," he said.
"Under Cambodian law, prisoners can be paroled three times a year - on the King's
birthday, during Khmer New Year and during Visak Bo Chea [a Buddhist ceremony held
during the rainy season]. At these times any convicted prisoner who has served one
third of his sentence can have that sentence reduced for good behavior and any prisoner
who has served two thirds of his sentence can be released."
But, the official said, the procedure in these cases was quite specific.
"Interior officials have two months to compile lists of prisoners who are to
be released or have their sentences reduced. The lists are then sent to the Justice
Ministry who sends them to the King for his signature. But this time we only had
about two weeks...
"We had no procedure to follow," the source said. "And without a proper
procedure, rich and well connected criminals can pay to have their names put on lists
of prisoners to be released."
But the King's intention to grant a mass amnesty did receive some support, with human
rights and legal observers applauding the move on humanitarian grounds.
At least one human rights lawyer said, however, that any such amnesty would need
to be accompanied by a host of other measures if it was to be successful.
Speaking in a private capacity, Juan Pablo Ordonez, a human rights lawyer involved
in legal training, said the vast majority of Cambodian prisoners were poor and had
very little to go to outside of prison.
"If you just release these people the chance that they will re-offend is very
high - they will have to rob and steal just to survive.
"For such an amnesty to be successful you need to support it with emergency
programs which provide food, shelter and job training - and those programs need to
be sustained for at least six months," he said.