Political pundit released in Cambodia, new charges loom

Kim Sok still needs to pay US$200,000 compensation to Prime Minister Hun Sen
Political pundit released in Cambodia, new charges loom

Political commentator Kim Sok with his daughter after his release from prison on Aug. 17. The picture was taken at Wat Chas, a Buddhist pagoda in Phnom Penh. (Photo by Sineat Yon)

After serving 18 months behind bars, Cambodian political commentator Kim Sok was released from prison on Aug. 17.

Kim Sok, 38, was convicted of incitement and defamation for stating that Cambodia's ruling party was behind the killing of Kem Ley, a popular political analyst who was assassinated two years ago.

Speaking from Wat Chas, a Buddhist pagoda in capital Phnom Penh, Kim Sok said that despite his release his freedom remained limited.

"They [the government] want to test me. They wonder, when I get released today, will I continue to do my work," Kim Sok said. "But I'm still committed to doing my job. I didn't commit terrorism, I didn't destroy the government. I only promoted democracy, justice and rule of law."

Kim Sok was arrested in February 2017 shortly after a radio interview with Radio Free Asia in which he accused Cambodia's ruling Cambodian People's Party of destroying the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and of being the mastermind of the assassination of Kem Ley.

"All along they have tried to destroy the CNRP, they have killed people, and the latest person killed was Kem Ley," Kim Sok said at the time.

The outspoken commentator was then charged by Prime Minister Hun Sen and sentenced to 18 months in prison, a fine of about US$2,000 and compensation of about US$200,000 to Hun Sen.

The sentence was widely condemned by human rights groups and seen as part of a wider government-led crackdown on opposition members, journalists and other critics. The same crackdown led to the dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest on charges of treason of opposition leader Kem Sokha.

At Wat Chas, Kim Sok was welcomed by family, friends and Buddhist monks who offered him a blessing ceremony for good luck.

Chou Same, Kim Sok's 61-year-old mother, told ucanews.com that she was happy that her son was released. "I see a lot of people have come out to support my son today, which makes me very emotional," Chou Same said, adding that it's difficult for her family to pay the US$200,000 compensation.

However, Kim Sok's freedom may be brief as he was called to Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Aug. 14 to be questioned about a second complaint in which Hun Sen accused him of incitement for comments he made on a different occasion.

Sok Eysan, spokesman for Cambodia's ruling party, confirmed that a second case has been filed at the court and that it's up to the court to see if Kim Sok is guilty or not.

Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said he was happy to hear that Kim Sok was released, but he added that the political commentator should not have been in prison in the first place. "When he said that he believed that the government was behind the killing of Kem Ley, he expressed his opinion. He should not have been criminalized for that," Robertson told ucanews.com.

Robertson said he has concerns about the possibility of new charges. "What happens is that Hun Sen is punishing his enemies," he said. "And without international pressure he feels that he can get away with it."

Kim Sok said that no matter what happens next, he is determined to continue working as a political commentator. "The most important thing we need to do is join hands to build a democracy in our country," he said. "I have returned from prison to continue my journey to seek for democracy."

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