A Long Beach man who had been jailed in Cambodia for years after what many considered a sham court proceeding has been released from a notorious foreign prison.
Meach Sovannara, a former spokesman for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party who had been jailed for speaking at a 2014 political protest in the nation’s capital, was released early Tuesday morning in Phnom Penh, according to Bo K.S. Uce, a political activist in Long Beach and family friend.
In July 2015, Sovannara and 10 others were convicted of various crimes connected to the protests after what human rights activists have called a “show trial.” Sovannara’s attorneys were not allowed to make closing arguments and justices deliberated for 15 minutes before returning with a conviction, according to Amnesty International.
Although no evidence was presented at trial, Sovannara was sentenced to 20 years in Prey Sar prison, a hellish, overcrowded complex where family and friends feared he could be killed at any moment.
Sovannara’s wife, Jamie Meach, and three daughters still live in Long Beach and have long campaigned for his release. Speaking to The Times through a translator, Jamie Meach said she believed her husband could return to the U.S. within two weeks. She has not been able to communicate with him directly since his release, she said.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Sovannara was one of 14 people jailed in connection with the 2014 protests who were released about 1 a.m. Tuesday in Phnom Penh, according to an ABC News report. Several other Cambodian National Rescue Party activists remain jailed in the country, however, including opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested last year.
The releases are part of a larger wave of pardons enacted by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen in recent weeks. Sen dissolved the Rescue Party in the lead-up to controversial elections. The prime minister’s Cambodian People’s Party claimed victory and won all possible seats in the National Assembly. Human rights observers have dismissed the election as rigged.
Experts said Hun Sen has released people like Sovannara in the hopes of gaining relief from foreign sanctions, but also dismissed the move as hollow after Hun Sen effectively eliminated his opposition.
“The releases are part of a systematic effort by the authorities in Phnom Penh to improve their image. They insist it isn’t about international pressure, but why else do it? Having taken all 125 seats in the July sham election, it’s now time to ease the vice they’ve used against the real opposition,” said Sophal Ear, a professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles and expert on Cambodian politics. “In exchange for this, they expect the West to back-off on sanctions … all the while claiming pressure had nothing to do with it.”
Sovannara has long served as an activist and journalist in Cambodia, according to his wife.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Sovannara published stories through Radio Free Asia that were highly critical of the government, taking specific aim at misuse of funds and allegations of election rigging by Hun Sen’s political party, Jamie Meach said.
After Sovannara received death threats over a story, Jamie Meach said, the family fled in 2003 to Long Beach, home to one of the largest Cambodian refugee populations in the U.S. He received asylum in 2004.
Hun Sen’s party retained power after a closer-than-expected election, which still drew protests and accusations of vote-rigging.
Sovannara was arrested during protests in Freedom Park in 2014, but was released on bond and allowed to return to the U.S., where he could have stayed to avoid prosecution.
But his family agreed the fight against Sen’s tyrannical government was too important, so Sovannara returned to Cambodia, where he remained jailed until this week.
“We’ve seen, both of us … Hun Sen’s violations of human rights, his oppression of democracy, and everything like that,” Jamie Meach told The Times in 2016. “So I had to, for my own self, I had to sacrifice in order for my husband to help liberate Cambodia.”
Source: LA Times