Report updated 3:30 p.m., Nov. 14.
PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's prime minister called on judicial and court officials to release former opposition officials and activists who had been charged for being part of opposition leader Sam Rainsy's attempted return last week.
Speaking Thursday in Kampot, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for courts to grant bail to some 70 people arrested in the run-up to Saturday, when Sam Rainsy attempted to return to Cambodia from self-exile in Paris, only to land in nearby Malaysia.
The activists and former party officials had been arrested for allegedly helping Sam Rainsy mount a coup which is how the government had characterized the opposition's attempted return to the country. But if the court does grant bail, that does not mean any charges against them have been dropped.
Hun Sen's announcement comes days after the European Union Commission submitted its initial findings on potentially suspending the "Everything But Arms" trade privileges, which would deal a major blow to the Cambodian economy.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Thursday accessed a leaked copy of the confidential report, where the commission points to a continuing deterioration of Cambodia's human rights record. RFA belongs to the same U.S. government-funded civilian broadcast consortium, the United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), as the Voice of America.
The bloc was concerned that Cambodia's government had violated the agreement when it arrested Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha, and banned the popular party, creating a smooth path to a one-party victory in 2018 elections.
"These actions have gravely curtailed political rights, political participation and electoral rights in Cambodia," the report said, according to excerpts published by RFA.
On Thursday, Hun Sen said arrested, former CNRP officials should be released from prison on bail, and that those who had fled the country should return without fear of being arrested.
"The ones who don't have court warrants and just feel scared, please come back," he said. "Nobody will touch you."
Hun Sen told CNRP officials, who had fled the country fearing arrest, that they could reach out to him on Facebook if they were arrested on return.
As of Thursday evening, VOA Khmer could confirm that two arrested CNRP officials from Kampong Thom province, Sun Bunthun and Nou Phoeun, had been released on bail. This does not mean any of the charges, however, have been dropped.
"It was unfair to imprison them in the past," said Sun Thun, former CNRP official and Sun Bunthun's brother. "It is a politically motivated case."
The prime minister's direction to court officials to release CNRP activists on Thursday, contradicted his government's claims earlier this week that they couldn't instruct the court to release or drop the charges against opposition leader Kem Sokha.
On Sunday, a Phnom Penh court altered the bail conditions for Kem Sokha, allowing him to travel within the country and effectively ending his house arrest.
Foreign governments and rights groups called for the treason charges to be dropped, though, and for Kem Sokha to be released. In response, the government said it could not interfere in the independence of the court.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Hun Sen's directive shows that the courts are not independent and are susceptible to political control.
"It's another example and another testimony that our … prime minister has influence on the judiciary. So, the judiciary is not independent," he said.
Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin instead characterized Hun Sen's directive as a request from the executive and that it was up to the court to take an independent decision. He added that the request was in no way linked to the EU Commission's report on Cambodia's human rights record.
"[Hun Sen's] request to the court is not interference," he said. "It is a request in his capacity the head of executive branch, but it is for the court to make its own decision."
Sun Narin contributed to this report.