The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has released or plans to release 11 environmental, social and political activists.
Seven activists were released on October 26 and four more are expected to be released between November 10 and 12, according to municipal court spokesman Plang Sophal.
Sophal stated that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court held a series of hearings recently and announced verdicts on October 26 in criminal cases involving a number of defendants identified by civil society organisations and in some media reports as environmental or political activists.
He added that the court found the defendants guilty and gave them prison sentences amounting to the time they had already served in detention with the rest of their sentences suspended.
The court also cleared all charges against Khmer-Australian politician Hong Lim, who was being tried in absentia for incitement to cause social disorder.
“The court’s decision came after the Ministry of Justice issued a directive on October 25, 2021, encouraging the court to decide to release [inmates] on bail and the use of suspension in a trial to reduce overcrowding in prisons,” he said.
Last week the court decided to release seven activists – Tum Vuthy, Chhou Pheng, Mean Prom Mony, Keurt Saray, Tha Lavy, Eng Malai and Sat Pha – all of whom had been arrested for participating in protests that led to clashes with police and security personnel in front of the Chinese embassy on October 23, 2020.
According to the verdict, they were sentenced to 20 months in prison and fined two million riel each on the charge of incitement to cause social chaos with credit for time served for the 15 months they have spent in detention already and the remaining five months suspended.
Sophal said that in addition to these seven activists, four other activists will also likely be released by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on similar terms.
Kak Sovanchhay – the 16-year-old son of a former CNRP politician – will be released on November 10. Muong Sopheak will be released on November 11, while Hun Vannak and Chhoeun Daravy will be released on November 14.
He added that four other inmates often classified as activists have not yet been released because they have been placed in pre-trial detention or convicted in other cases. Those four were named as opposition activist Kong Sam An along with Long Kunthea, Phoun Keo Raksmey and Thon Ratha who are members of the Mother Nature Movement.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said on November 9 that the release of the activists was the result of standard court procedure following the verdicts and sentencing in their cases.
He explained that due to the limited resources of the courts affecting the pace at which they can work through the existing caseload it is not uncommon for the verdict in any given case to be time served along with a suspension of the remainder of the sentence.
“This decision is the court’s to make. The court has discretionary power and bases its decisions on the facts, questions of law and the guidelines of the Ministry of Justice that are laid out in its recent campaign to clear the court’s backlog of cases to reduce prison overcrowding.
“The ministry’s campaign encourages the courts to speed up resolution of cases whenever possible and – if appropriate – to show mercy to some convicts by providing more concessions in cases involving minor offenses,” he said.
Kak Sovanchhay was initially set to be released by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on November 8 after being detained for almost 4 months and 15 days, but the release was delayed.
“In Kak Sovanchhay’s case, he was also sentenced and the active portion of his prison sentence will end soon and he will be released. The rest of his sentence will be suspended as well – no different from the others – and he will then be on probation,” Malin said.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho, said the release of these 11 activists was partly thanks to the court finally coming to a verdict but also partly due to the serious criticisms over human rights issues in Cambodia that were brought up repeatedly by prominent people including diplomats and UN representatives.
“With the release of these activists from prison [the Cambodian government] seems to want to defuse tensions and mitigate the criticism it has received surrounding the human rights situation here as well as the political situation in Cambodia alike,” he said.
Am Sam Ath noted that the activists with suspended sentences were still on probation for periods as long as two years following release and therefore they were still under the supervision of the courts system and subject to re-arrest if they are ever deemed to have violated the conditions of their probation.
“This effectively means that they are not allowed to carry out activities such as advocacy work on the environment and human rights or any other issues for a period even longer than their actual prison sentence,” he said.