When a judge ordered Meach Sovannara to spend 20 years in a notorious Cambodian prison, some feared the Long Beach resident had been handed a death sentence.
Political dissenters rarely see their stories end well in Cambodia, and Sovannara had been banished in 2015 to Prey Sar prison, which human rights activists describe as an overcrowded, hellish lockup where others who have opposed Prime Minister Hun Sen have lived out their final days in misery.
A former teacher and journalist turned political activist, Sovannara was already in declining health due to a head injury he suffered in a car accident shortly before he was convicted. While in prison, he suffered from chronic migraines, high blood pressure, jaundice and diarrhea, relatives said.
Even though his conviction stemmed from a show trial during which no evidence was presented, Sovannara had been convicted of speaking out against Hun Sen in a country where the prime minister’s power is absolute. Asked about the chance of Sovannara ever returning to the U.S., a family friend grimly told The Times in 2016 that “Meach Sovannara already knows his fate.”
In spite of those fears, Sovannara could now be reunited with his wife and two children as early as next month.
Sovannara was among 14 members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party who were released from Prey Sar early Tuesday in Phnom Penh, and he might return to the U.S. within two weeks, his wife, Jamie Meach, told The Times through an interpreter.
Sovannara’s pending return was met with muted reaction in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, which is home to one of the largest Cambodian populations in the U.S. Homeland politics are a highly controversial topic of discussion in the area, where political disputes over a visit from Hun Sen’s son caused the cancellation of a Cambodian New Year’s parade a few years ago.
Charles Song, a career advancement counselor with the Cambodian Assn. of America, declined to weigh in on the political ramifications of the situation. But he said that people are happy for Sovannara’s family no matter what side they fall on.
“When you have a situation like this, it always brings joy not only to the family but to the entire community," Song said. "I’m sure they’re going to throw a big party for him when he arrives in the U.S.”
In July 2015, Sovannara and 10 others were convicted of various crimes connected to political protests that stemmed from what human rights watchdogs have described as a rigged national election. Experts believe the recent releases of several members of the opposition party, including Sovannara, are part of an attempt by Hun Sen to earn relief from financial sanctions that have been imposed on the country in response to its notoriously corrupt election process.
In the run-up to national elections this year, Hun Sen dissolved the opposition party. His Cambodian People’s Party later won all 125 seats in the National Assembly.
“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 vise 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.”
Several other opposition party members remain jailed in the country, however, including opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was arrested last year.
The State Department did not respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday. In recent months, the Trump administration has stepped up sanctions and visa restrictions against Cambodian officials who “undermine democracy,” including Hun Sen’s chief bodyguard.
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. They were granted asylum in 2004, and Sovannara holds dual citizenship in both the U.S. and Cambodia.
While in Long Beach, the family published a Khmer-language newspaper, the Khmer Post. But with Hun Sen under increased pressure to hold fair elections in 2013, Sovannara returned to Phnom Penh to work with opposition forces.
Hun Sen’s party retained power after a closer-than-expected election, which drew protests and accusations of vote-rigging. Anti-government protests were held regularly in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, which was closed after repeated clashes between demonstrators and national police.
During a speech calling for the park to be reopened, Sovannara spoke out against Hun Sen for ceding land to Vietnam during a border dispute. He was later arrested and charged with attempting to incite an insurrection.
Prior to his trial, Sovannara was released on bond and managed to return to the U.S., where he could have stayed to avoid prosecution. But his family agreed that the fight against Hun Sen’s tyrannical government was too important, so Sovannara returned to Cambodia in 2015, where he remained jailed until this week.
"We've seen, both of us … Hun Sen's violations of human rights, his oppressions 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."
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) said he was relieved to hear of Sovannara’s release, but also blasted Hun Sen’s government for continuing to crack down on free speech and demanded the country hold truly democratic elections in the immediate future.
“Like too many Cambodians who have tried to stand up for their right to a democratic government under the Cambodian Constitution, Mr. Sovannara and the others were falsely accused and wrongly imprisoned by the totalitarian Hun Sen regime. This token show of mercy cannot erase a legacy of stolen elections, outrageous violations of human rights, including beatings, imprisonment and killings of opposition members,” the statement read. “The international community cannot accept anything less than full democratization, accountability for past crimes, and systemic reforms.”