Cambodia frees 14 government critics

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia released 14 government critics on Tuesday, in a move by Prime Minister Hun Sen that some observers say is aimed at appeasing foreign criticism of a flawed general election last month.

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The 14, who are all members or supporters of Cambodia’s now dissolved main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), were released from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.

They were convicted in 2014 of insurrection after they forcibly tried to reopen the country’s only designated protest venue, “Freedom Park”, in July that year and were handed jail terms ranging from seven to 20 years.

The convictions were widely criticized as politically motivated.

“We have been waiting a long time to see Cambodians really reconcile as a nation with democratic principles and respect for human rights,” Meach Sovannara, one of the 14, told reporters after police dropped him off at his home in Phnom Penh.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept all parliamentary seats in last month’s largely unopposed election.

But rights groups said the July 29 vote was neither free nor fair given the absence of a significant challenger to Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 33 years.

Hun Sen has requested pardons for 23 people since Aug. 17.

Sebastian Strangio, author of the book “Hun Sen’s Cambodia”, said the pardons served a dual function of easing domestic political tensions and presenting Western critics with some marginal signs of democratic progress.

“This does not signify any substantial change in Hun Sen’s mentality,” Strangio told Reuters.

“If the CPP faces a serious challenge before the next election, history suggests that Hun Sen will do whatever he needs to do in order to maintain his hold on power,” he added.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the recent pardons were a “humanitarian” act by Hun Sen and not a response to international criticism.

Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Richard Pullin