It was a moment Jamie Meach thought would never come.
When a Cambodian court sentenced her husband, Meach Sovannara, to 20 years in a hellish prison following what human rights observers dismissed as a “show trial” in 2015, the Long Beach woman feared she had seen him for the last time.
On Saturday, she was happily proved wrong.
Sovannara, a Long Beach resident and Cambodian political activist, was nearly tackled by his wife and daughters when he appeared at Los Angeles International Airport, returning to the U.S. for the first time in years and marking the end of an international legal saga that many feared would end with his death in a prison cell on the other side of the world.
“I never thought that he would be released,” Jamie Meach said as more than a dozen friends and well-wishers surrounded the family and snapped pictures.
A former teacher and journalist-turned-political activist, Sovannara was acting as a spokesman for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party when he was arrested for criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen during a speech in 2014. Although no evidence was presented at trial, Sovannara was sentenced to 20 years in Prey Sar prison, an infamous, overcrowded complex in the nation’s capital where many of those who oppose Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule have died.
Sovannara suffered chronic migraines, high blood pressure, jaundice and diarrhea inside Prey Sar while also receiving poor medical care for a head injury he suffered in a car accident months before his conviction, his family has said.
An appeal of his conviction had previously been denied, and with Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party continuing to amass power, Sovannara’s release seemed unlikely.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, was dissolved by the government earlier this year and Hun Sen’s party won all 125 seats in the National Assembly during an election process that most observers have dismissed as rigged.
But Sovannara was one of 14 CNRP members released from Prey Sar in late August. Experts believe Hun Sen freed Sovannara and the other prisoners in the hopes of gaining relief from financial sanctions imposed by nations that have been long critical of his autocratic government. Cambodia has been the target of U.S. sanctions for years. In recent months, the Trump administration stepped up sanctions and visa restrictions against Cambodian officials who “undermine democracy,” including Hun Sen’s chief bodyguard.
As he appeared at Tom Bradley International Terminal in a dark suit, Sovannara let loose a wry smile while clasping his hands together and bowing toward supporters and loved ones. His muted reaction was met by shouts and cheers from his three daughters, who raced across the terminal to hug their father.
Sovannara’s oldest daughter, Samantha, hid her face from photographers as tears streamed down her cheeks. Nearby, someone waved a CNRP flag in the air.
“I feel very happy. I missed my family, my children. My friends,” Sovannara said through an interpreter. “It’s been almost four years.”
Sovannara declined to discuss what, if any, conversations his legal team had with Cambodian officials about his release. He said he plans to continue speaking out against Hun Sen’s government.
“We will continue to fight for democracy, justice and fairness in my motherland,” he said.
Sovannara first gained notoriety for challenging the Cambodian government when he published stories through Radio Free Asia about the misuse of public funds in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Jamie Meach told The Times during a 2016 interview.
After Sovannara received death threats over a story in 2003, the family fled to Long Beach. They were granted asylum in 2004, and Sovannara holds dual citizenship in the U.S. and Cambodia.
As he stood at her side, Sovannara praised Jamie for protecting their daughters and encouraging him to continue fighting despite what it nearly cost their family.