Five activists who were convicted with incitement and released from prison on Friday pledged that they would continue to advocate for human rights and democracy in line with the law. Although three more environmental activists already convicted in May had their sentences reduced and were also ordered to be released today, their families say they remain in prison.
The five activists from Prey Sar prison this afternoon after completing their sentences included Tha Lavy, Keout Saray and Mean Prummony, who are associated with the Khmer Thavrak and Khmer Student Intelligent League Association youth groups, as well as two former opposition party activists Chhour Pheng and Chum Puthy. The five activists were arrested in August and September last year in connection with peaceful demonstrations against the imprisonment of unionist Rong Chhun.
After their release, the five received a blessing at the Ang Metrey pagoda near the correctional centre before returning to their respective homes.
Speaking at the pagoda, Prummony maintained that he had not been guilty of incitement.
“I think it is still an injustice, because we had carried out rights to peaceful assembly and protesting,” he said. “It is a serious conviction.”
“I will still protest to promote human rights and strengthen democracy in society,” he said. He added that he will consider consulting his lawyer over a potential appeal against the court’s decision.
“What I had done wasn’t wrong or disturbed society or the security or rights of other people,” he said.
The young activist complained that he had had to share a narrow prison cell with 23 other inmates, lacking clean water and hygiene.
“It was very crowded because it was just four-by-four meters,” he said.
Former CNRP’s activist Chhour Pheng, who has been behind bars for 15 months before his release today, also maintained his innocence and called on the court to drop all charges against him.
“I think the government has just eased the pressure,” he said. “It isn’t resolving justice for us.”
Pheng said that the months spent in prison had been difficult.
“Prison guards had restrictions for activists,” he said. “Even when we met with family members, or were exercising or talking to other inmates, they always followed us.”
Also today, the Phnom Penh Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s conviction of three other activists from environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia — Thon Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phuong Keoreaksmey — but reduced their sentences to one year and two months, according to defense lawyer Sam Chamroeun who attended the hearing.
Chamroeun said that presiding judge Yun Narong placed the activists under court supervision for three years and banned them from travelling abroad.
“I can’t accept the conviction of my clients, even if they have reduced their sentences, because they are innocent,” Chamroeun said. He added that his clients would also be released today.
In May, Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Ratha to 20 months and Kunthea and Keoreaksmey to 18 months in prison over their plans for a one-woman march to raise awareness of the impact of filling in lakes for development in the capital last year.
Chak Sopheap, executive director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that the judicial harassment that these three activists had faced over the past 14 months showed the deteriorated climate for civil society in Cambodia.
“While we rejoice in their release, we lament that they were arrested in the first place for their peaceful and legitimate activities in defense of the environment,” she said.
“[Their case] shows a systemic attempt at silencing any inconvenient truth that the RGC [Royal Government of Cambodia] does not want to contend with,” Sopheap said. “It is high time for the RGC to stop viewing activists and human rights defenders as threats to be neutralized,”
San Saran, the 53-year-old mother of Mother Nature activist Long Kunthea, expressed disappointment that prison officials have not released her daughter despite the fact that the court had approved her release.
“I heard that my daughter would be released today, but she hasn’t come out yet,” she said. She said her daughter’s lawyer had told her that prison officials had claimed not to have seen the warrant from the court authorising her release.
“I am also unhappy that they placed my daughter under years of court supervision because even though she was released she remains under watch by the court and has no freedom,” Saran said.
“My daughter didn’t incite anybody,” she insisted.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at human rights group LICADHO, said Cambodia will be widely criticised for this latest development, noting that even though the courts had reduced their sentences, they had still been convicted and had their rights restricted.
“It was just a reduced conviction, but if we look at the arrest of them it wasn’t implemented in accordance with the law, and it violated the human rights of those activists,” he said. He said that environmental activists should be encouraged and given support as in other countries, but that in Cambodia they are charged and arrested instead.
“The penalty from the court can threaten and affect other activists who are willing to participate in social issues,” Sam Ath said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that the court’s decision was based on solid evidence and Cambodian law.
“Those activists were arrested because they had committed an offense, they weren’t exercising their rights and freedom,” he said.
“A conviction against defendants based on the law isn’t a restriction on freedom of expression, but a mechanism to promote rights, freedom and rule of law.”
(Additional reporting by Sam Sopich)