Cambodian authorities freed a detained Cambodian labor union leader and two fellow labor activists on Friday after an appeals court upheld parts of their convictions while releasing them for time served for other charges, rights groups and activists said.
Union leader Rong Chhun and labor rights activists Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol were among 18 political prisoners released by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s authoritarian government, which has staged a sweeping crackdown on the political opposition and critics since 2017.
The three labor activists were joined by a political party leader, five wives of jailed Cambodian opposition activists, and six environmental activists.
“I, Rong Chhun, have returned to see you again,” he told a crowd of about 200 supporters outside Prey Sar Prison on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, where he was serving his sentence.
“We must walk toward freedom. We must seek democracy for our country. Even though I was jailed more than a year, I have always stayed with you,” said Rong Chhun.
“The prison can’t break activists and people’s spirits,” he said. “When we are not afraid they will stop arresting us. We must maintain our courage for the sake of freedom, our rights and democracy.”
Rong Chhun and the two labor activists had parts of their sentences for incitement suspended, according to the Cambodian human rights organization Licadho.
The Phnom Penh Appeals Court did not say why it decided to drop the other charges against the three, who will be on probation and face restrictions on their travel and activities for two years.
Authorities arrested Rong Chhun for a statement he made in July 2020 about the alleged loss of land near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam border after he visited the area and spoke with local residents.
Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol were arrested during peaceful demonstrations in August and October 2020, respectively, Licadho said in a statement.
Rong Chhun and Sar Kanika have spent more than 15 months in prison, while Nimol has been locked up for over a year.
The appeals court dropped the remainder of Rong Chhun’s two-year sentence and the remainder of Sar Kanika’s 20-month sentence. Ton Nimol must serve 14 months and 24 days in prison, though the court suspended the remainder of his 20-month sentence.
The court said the trio must remain on probation for three years following their release, forbade them from associating with each other, and required them to inform a prosecutor if they changed addresses, Licadho said.
The court also upheld an order for the three activists to each pay 2 million riel (U.S. $500) in fines, and jointly pay 400 million riel (U.S. $100,000) in damages, the group said.
Rong Chhun left prison with Khmer Win Party President Soung Sophorn who was also released. Authorities had arrested the politician in August 2020 on charges of inciting chaos and causing insecurity to society after he protested and demanded Rong Chhung’s release from jail.
Soung Sophorn told the crowd outside the courthouse that he would resume his political career following his release.
Court officials also released five women from a group known as the “Friday Wives” for their weekly rallies on behalf of their husbands from the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The five were arrested for demanding the release of Rong Chhun and CNRP activists during a protest in front of Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh. The women had already spent 12 to 20 months in jail.
Also on Friday, authorities released six environmental activists from the group Mother Nature, but the court upheld an earlier 20-month incitement sentence passed in absentia on the group’s founder Alejandro Gonzalez Davidson.
“The government has softened its stance which is a sign indicating that the situation is getting better,” said Thailand-based political analyst Seng Sary.
He told RFA that the gestures could be beneficial for Cambodia, seen by many outsiders as a de facto one-party state, when it serves as chair of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) in 2022, and hosts meetings with the European Union and the United States, both of which have sanctioned Phnom Penh over human rights abuses.
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