Commune Chief Freed, More Pardons to Come

Four human rights workers and an election official will be pardoned after their trial, opposition officials said on Thursday, in the latest signal of a sudden political detente that also led to the release on Thursday of a jailed commune chief.

In response to a request from deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was pardoned last week for a conviction widely seen as politically motivated, Prime Minister Hun Sen will request that King Norodom Sihamoni give the same treatment to the other five defendants, CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said on Thursday.

CNRP commune chief Seang Chet, right, and acting opposition leader Kem Sokha pray at a pagoda outside Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“That is the only way because they all were sentenced by court,” he said. “So the solution is petition the prime minister to request him to grant a pardon.”

Mr. Chhay Eang did not say why Mr. Hun Sen would wait until the end of the trial to request the pardon for the five men, who have languished in jail since April while authorities investigated the group for allegedly bribing a young woman to deny having an affair with Mr. Sokha.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng said on Wednesday to expect a “resolution” in the case by the end of the month.

Seang Chet, a CNRP commune chief in Kompong Cham province who was pardoned for his role in the same case on Wednesday, continued to deny the charges, but said he was happy to be free.

“It was difficult living in prison, with itchy infections caused by some prisoners,” Mr. Chet said outside Prey Sar prison.

“I am not upset even though I was sentenced to five years in prison,” he added. “Politics is normally like that.”

Speaking at an event in Phnom Penh on Thursday, Mr. Hun Sen offered advice to his political rivals that appeared to draw distinctions between the styles of Mr. Sokha and exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

International pressure “is useless,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “If you put pressure, I sleep and pretend not to know anything.”

CNRP President Sam Rainsy has used his exile base in France to rally international attention around Cambodia’s political deadlock. Authorities have barred him from returning to the country and Mr. Hun Sen says he has no chance of being pardoned from a two-year prison sentence.

“Never pressure this person,” the prime minister said of himself. “This person cannot be pressured. But, in the quiet situation, just several hours of activity lead to closure.”

“Don’t use the word ‘international pressure,’” he continued. “But if it is quiet and easy, let’s do it. My character is different from others at this point. Remember my character clearly.”

Both Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha have spent more than two decades locking horns with the prime minister. However, this is not the first time the two CNRP leaders have entered into a period of calm with the premier.

In a deal brokered after the contested 2013 national elections, the CNRP agreed to end its parliamentary boycott in exchange for concessions from the CPP—mainly reform of the election system—as well as the start of a “culture of dialogue.”

In the ensuing months, Mr. Hun Sen cozied up to Mr. Rainsy and slammed Mr. Sokha. The dialogue had long since collapsed by the time the government issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Rainsy in November last year over a dormant defamation case, kicking off the wave of arrests that netted the Adhoc officials, opposition officials, activists and others.

Ou Virak, founder of the Freedom Forum think tank, said the sudden favoring of Mr. Sokha was just the latest move from an old political playbook.

“I think it is political strategy and business as usual,” he said on Thursday. “Even if there’s a positive situation now, I believe competition between both parties remains an obstacle in the future.”

Mr. Virak predicted the calm would last through next year’s commune elections before another round of suppression before the next national election.

“I think the situation will be calm for the year ahead, but before the 2018 elections the situation will become tense, with rain and storms ahead.”

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Correction: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Kem Sokha was pardoned of bribery charges. He was pardoned of a conviction for refusing to appear in court. 

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