Cambodian opposition activists have lambasted Prime Minister Hun Sen for returning a confiscated illegal pet lion to its Chinese owner to raise at home, though he continues to refuse to release detained political and environmental activists so they can reunite with their families.
The 18-month-old cub named Hima, which weighs 70 kilograms (154 pounds) and is declawed and defanged, was trafficked into Cambodia from abroad, news agencies reported.
Authorities raided the villa of Chinese national Qi Xiao and confiscated the lion on June 27 after videos of the animal playing on the grounds were seen on the video app TikTok, saying that it was illegal to keep lions as pets in Cambodia.
But they returned Hima to its owner on Monday after Hun Sen intervened in the matter. He had written on his Facebook page that because people took pity on the plight of the lion, he discussed the matter with Cambodia’s Minister of Agriculture Veng Sakhon and decided to return the animal as long as Qi kept it in a cage to ensure the safety of people in the house and the neighbors.
Hun Sen said he released the animal because this was a special case of an lion being raised by a human since it was a cub.
The family members of detained political opposition activists didn’t see it that way, however.
They said the incident shows that the Cambodian government, which ramped up its persecution of opposition activists on politically motivated charges in recent years, cares more about satisfying an animal and a Chinese national than it does about its own people who try to promote reforms in the country.
Prum Chantha, wife of imprisoned CNRP member Kak Komphear, said that while the release of the lion was to satisfy the Chinese pet owner, she wants the government to apply the same sentiment to detained political, social, and environmental activists and allow them to reunite with their families.
Authorities imprisoned Kak Komphear and his 16-year-old autistic son, Kak Sovanchhay, on bogus charges, she said. The latter was arrested in June and charged with incitement and insulting public officials.
“He does not care,” Prum Chantha said of Hun Sen. “If he did, he would not have arrested my husband and my son and put them in jail like that. Their arrest and imprisonment contradict both national and international laws.”
Prum Chantha is a member of the “Friday Wives” group of women who have held weekly protests demanding the release of their husbands jailed on incitement charges for expressing views critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership.
“The lives of our husbands are not equal to that of the lion,” she said about her spouse and other men arrested by authorities for being political opposition activists.
No support, no encouragement
Phan Satha, daughter of detained CNRP member Lim San, said the government is trying to show to the public that it has taken pity on the lion owned by a Chinese national, while it imprisons its own citizens for working to protect and support social justice and national interests.
Authorities arrested Lim San for participating in protests on Oct. 23, 2020, the 29th anniversary of the signing of Paris Peace Agreements, calling on the Cambodian government to respect the landmark accords that ended the Vietnam-Cambodia conflict. She and two others were charging her with incitement to commit a felony.
She said she regrets that the government cares more about a lion owned by a Chinese person living in Cambodia than about its citizens who routinely deal with injustices.
“My mother has been in prison for eight months without a trial or bail,” Phan Satha said. “She should not have been imprisoned like that. For a number of Chinese and powerful people, they were allowed out on bail.”
Thach Thida, mother of jailed human rights defender Chhoeun Daravy, a member of Khmer Youth Thavarak movement, said her daughter has been in jail for 11 months, and that the government has not shown any gesture of support and encouragement for young people.
Chhoeun Daravy, who has been involved in calling attention to rights issues concerning the environment, was arrested in August 2020, for participating in peaceful protest in Phnom Penh. She and was part of a larger group of protesters who had gathered outside the municipal court to demand the release of recently arrested human rights defenders.
Thach Thida called on the government to release her daughter and other activists because she is concerned that they will contract the COVID-19 virus in prison.
“I request that the prime minister consider releasing my daughter and other youths because they were just working to protect the environment and national resources,” she said.
RFA could not reach Srey Vuthy, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, or Chin Malin, spokesman for the Justice Ministry for comment.
Some social media users have reacted strongly to Hun Sen’s action, saying that raising wild animals at home is against the law and that if the prime minister can release seized lions, then detained young people who work to protect the environment and natural resources, and conserve forests and wildlife should be released as well.
CNRP Vice President Eng Chai Eang said on his Facebook page on Wednesday that Hun Sen has shown compassion for a lion by ordering authorities to release it to its owner, but has failed to show the same sentiment to political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, including Kak Sovanchhay.
San Mala, senior advocacy officer at the Cambodian Youth Network, said he believes that Hun Sen’s decision could affect wildlife policy by encouraging people to raise wildlife at home, which is against the law.
He added that the government should draw upon the same sentiment to free young imprisoned environmentalists and drop charges against them so they can return to their families.
“Some people feel sorry that the lion was separated from its owner when it was taken away from the Chinese man and asked the government to return [it],” he said.
“The government made a decision based on sentimental factors,” he said. “Therefore, [it] should have the same sentiment for young people working for the common good of the nation and to drop the charges against them and set them free in accordance with the law.”
Cambodian authorities have arrested and jailed about 80 political, environmental, and social activists, charging many of them with incitement.
The families of detainees along with national and international organizations and major democratic nations including the United States, have condemned the arrests, saying that they were made without legal justification.
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