Cambodia frees 26 opposition activists and political prisoners

Former activists of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) sit in a police truck as they arrive at the Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, on Nov 17, 2021.
Former activists of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) sit in a police truck as they arrive at the Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, on Nov 17, 2021.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

PHNOM PENH (REUTERS) - Cambodia has released 26 political, environmental and youth activists facing charges of incitement against the government, which human rights groups said was a positive step but that many more remained incarcerated.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 36 years, is facing calls to improve his administration's human rights record ahead of an Asia Europe summit that it hosts this month.

A justice ministry spokesman, confirming the release of the jailed activists, denied any international pressure and said they were freed partly to reduce overcrowding in prisons.

"This is a normal court procedure, the court didn't pay attention to whether you are activists or not," Mr Chin Malin told Reuters on Wednesday (Nov 17).

"This is a campaign to help solve cases that are stuck in courts and reduce the capacity in crowded prisons," he added.

Among those released between Nov 5 and 12, 2021 were members of the environment group Mother Nature Cambodia, opposition party activists and the union leader Rong Chhun, Human Rights Watch said.

But charges against them have not been dropped.

"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 Mr Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Another 60 political prisoners remain in custody, the rights group said.

"We appeal to the government to release other youth and political activists unconditionally as they should never have been imprisoned for raising critical issues about the environment or rule of law in Cambodia in the public domain,"said Ms Naly Pilorge, director of local human rights group LICADHO.