KING Norodom Sihamoni has encouraged Prime Minister Hun Sen to request that Hang Chakra, the opposition newspaper publisher who received a one-year prison term in June after being convicted of disinformation, be granted amnesty and released.
In a letter dated October 27, the King said an earlier appeal from the Sam Rainsy Party had prompted him to push for amnesty.
“I have received a letter from the SRP dated October 23, 2009, asking me to give amnesty to Khmer Machas Srok newspaper publisher Hang Chakra, currently imprisoned at Prey Sar prison on disinformation charges,” the letter stated.
“I am submitting this letter to Samdech Techo [Hun Sen], head of the Royal Government, for consideration.”
On June 26, Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Hang Chakra of spreading disinformation, sentenced him to one year in prison and ordered him to pay 9 million riels (US$2,250) in fines.
The charge, which drew strong criticism from human rights groups and free speech advocates, stemmed from a series of articles Hang Chakra published in April and May accusing officials working under Deputy Prime Minister Sok An of corruption.
According to Article 27 of the Constitution, the King has “the right to grant partial or complete amnesty” to any Cambodian subject. But Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, noted that a sub-decree predating the 1993 Constitution requires the premier to issue a formal request before amnesty can be granted.
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith declined to comment in detail but said he supported the King’s decision to send a letter requesting amnesty for Hang Chakra.
“I support the King’s intention, but it depends on the plaintiff,” he said, referring to Sok An, who brought the charges against Hang Chakra.
But government lawyer Suong Chanthan, who prosecuted the case against Hang Chakra, said the decision whether to grant amnesty would “depend on the government, not on individuals”.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the court system had displayed an obvious bias in the Hang Chakra case as well as in other disinformation and defamation cases involving government critics, meaning the only chance for justice would be through Royal intervention.
“The courts are not independent – they are influenced by the ruling party. We can’t trust anybody else but the King,” he said.
He added that the request for the release of Hang Chakra – whom Yim Sovann described as a “prisoner of conscience” – was an indication that the monarch recognised the unjust nature of the case against him. “By writing a letter to Hun Sen [about Hang Chakra], it’s a recognition he is innocent,” he said.
This is not the first time the King has intervened on behalf of a journalist, said Um Sarin, director of the Cambodian Association for the Protection of Journalists, who added that in cases of perceived bias on the part of the legal system, a royal plea is often the only recourse.
“It is the last resort of ordinary people,” he said.
When contacted on Sunday, Hang Chakra’s daughter, Hang Chanpisey, said her father’s health had deteriorated during his five months in prison.
“My father looks so thin. His face keeps getting thinner and thinner,” she said.