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Mother Nature activist Thun Ratha is reunited with his wife and child after being released from prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, November 12, 2021. © 2021 LICADHO

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release Cambodia’s more than 60 political prisoners remaining in custody, Human Rights Watch said today. Between November 5 and 12, 2021, the authorities released 26 political prisoners but did not drop the charges against them, making them subject to future arrest and imprisonment.

Among those released were political, environmental, and youth activists, including members of the group Mother Nature Cambodia, Khmer Thavrak, opposition party activists, the union leader Rong Chhun, and “Friday Women” protesters. However, the authorities imposed various probationary conditions on those released, including regular reporting; limits on freedom of movement; prohibitions on associating with other released prisoners; and other restrictions on activities and rights. Violating these conditions could result in prompt rearrest and return to prison, yet several activists told the media that they would continue their peaceful activism.

“The release of 26 wrongfully detained political prisoners is good news, but there is nothing to stop the Cambodian authorities from rearresting them at any time,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments, in particular European Union participants to the Asia-Europe Meeting Summit in Phnom Penh in late November, should press the Cambodian government to drop the conditions imposed on those released and unconditionally free all remaining political prisoners.”

The more than 60 remaining political prisoners include opposition activists, land rights activists, journalists, and people arrested for critical posts on social media.

The 26 released prisoners include:

  • Outspoken trade union leader Rong Chhun, who had been arrested on fabricated incitement charges in August 2020 and sentenced to two years in prison. He was released after being detained for 15 months, but the authorities upheld a fine of two million riels (US$500) and a large compensation payment.
  • Six activists with the organization Mother Nature: Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy, Ly Chandaravuth, Thun Ratha, Long Kunthea, and Phuon Keoraksmey. Each faced a range of conspiracy, lese majeste (“insulting the king”), and incitement charges and had been jailed for up to 14 months.
  • Opposition activists Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol, who had been convicted of incitement in August and sentenced to 20 months. After the activists were detained between 12 to 15 months, the authorities suspended parts of their prison sentences but upheld the order, imposing a fine of two million riels (US$500) on each and a large compensation payment.
  • Five women belonging to the Friday Women protest movement, some of whom had been detained for over 12 months. Friday Women had been protesting every Friday for the release of their imprisoned relatives, all opposition activists.

Last week, Thailand forcibly returned to Cambodia two political opposition activists who were registered as refugees with the United Nations Refugee Agency. They now face trial and long prison sentences in Cambodia on politically motivated charges.

On November 25 and 26, 2021, Cambodia will host the 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit, attended by representatives of the European Union and 51 governments. In August 2020, the European Commission partially suspended Cambodia’s trade preferences under the “Everything But Arms” program because it found the Cambodian government was committing “serious and systematic violations” of civil and political rights, and labor rights violations. In 2022, Cambodia will also host the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

On November 10 the US State Department issued an advisory to US businesses in light of the lack of human rights improvements in Cambodia. It also announced an assessment of Cambodia’s Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) eligibility. The GSP program is conditioned on a range of criteria, including labor standards.

Cambodia is scheduled to hold commune elections in 2022 and national elections in 2023. With the government-controlled Supreme Court’s arbitrary dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017, harassment of the opposition has drastically increased. Currently, over 30 opposition members remain in prison.

“Cambodia’s prisoner releases show the government’s apparent concern for the international response to the ASEM meeting and the spotlight it will have as the chair of ASEAN in 2022,” Adams said. “The EU, US, donors and other friends of Cambodia should press Prime Minister Hun Sen to end the cynical game of revolving prison doors where some people are released, and others take up their places in the same prison cells.”

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