Cambodia frees activist, bails journalists after flawed election


Cambodian land activist Tep Vanny released from prison in Phnom Penh after being pardoned. (AFP pic)

PHNOM PENH: Two journalists were freed from jail in Cambodia on Tuesday, a day after a prominent land rights activist was pardoned, as the government loosens its grip on dissenters in the wake of a flawed election victory last month

Cambodia’s king pardoned land campaigner Tep Vanny late Monday at the request of strongman prime minister Hun Sen, days after he officially extended his 33-year grip on power.

And on Tuesday, two journalists who had worked for the US-backed broadcaster Radio Free Asia received bail and were released, ten months after they were detained on espionage charges in a case slammed by rights groups.

Analysts have said Hun Sen could use pardons and the kingdom’s pliant courts to help deflect criticism, as he has in the past, amid questions of legitimacy after July’s vote was widely decried as a sham.

Vanny has long been a thorn in the side of authorities for advocating on behalf of Phnom Penh communities displaced by unchecked development, and has been in and out of jail.

Last arrested in August 2016, she was hit with an additional two-and-a-half-year jail term just as her sentence was due to expire.

Vanny told AFP on Tuesday while picking up her belongings at Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison that she was surprised by the pardon, which cut short her time behind bars by about a year.

“I was reluctant to believe it when prison guards told me to prepare myself for the release, so I asked them: ‘Are you joking with me?'” she said.

Three other activists who were already out on bail were also included in the pardon signed by King Norodom Sihamoni.

Joyful reunion
The journalists — Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin — were arrested last November for allegedly running an illegal media studio and filing reports from a guesthouse in the capital.

Their arrest came after Radio Free Asia, a popular source of Khmer-language news, suspended its operations in Cambodia, citing the government’s “increasingly threatening and intimidating rhetoric about RFA”.

Phnom Penh municipal court spokesperson Y Rin told AFP they received bail based on the decision of an investigating judge.

The two were released later Tuesday from Prey Sar, where they greeted family and friends at the prison gates in a joyful reunion.

Sothearin said he was happy to be let go but that his legal troubles were not over.

“We call on the court to drop all charges against us so that we can have full freedom,” he told reporters.

Hun Sen backed a crackdown on perceived threats in the run-up to the election, which included the shuttering of media outlets and the expulsion of foreign staff from a prominent pro-democracy NGO.

The main opposition party was dissolved and one of its leaders arrested, clearing the way for Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to grab all seats in parliament in the vote — turning the country into a one-party state.

Vanny said she would continue her work but suggested she would dial down her activism as it had taken a toll on her family.

“I was in jail four times,” she said. “So it affects my family, especially my children, and I lost my job and livelihood.”