Candlelight Party official Hem Chhil was released on bail by the Appeal Court on Thursday, months after he was arrested for alleged illegal fishing in Pursat province.
Chhil was arrested in April 2022, weeks shy of the June commune election, for allegedly using electric fishing equipment. He was the Candlelight Party’s commune council candidate from Sya commune in Pursat province. The family alleged the police planted the fishing equipment and it did not belong to the family.
Sam Sokong, Chhil’s lawyer, said the Pursat Provincial Court had denied bail but the Appeal Court in Battambang granted his client bail because the charge was a misdemeanor and Chhil needed to take care of his family.
“The Appeal Court in Battambang granted my client bail for two reasons: one because it is a misdemeanor and two because my client … has to look after his old parents as well as his young children,” Sokong said.
According to accounts from Chhil’s family, police came to observe the family’s fish pond on April 12 and then disappeared into the forest before returning with electric fishing equipment. They used that as evidence to arrest Chhil and his 15-year-old son, who was later released.
Sokong said it was suspicious that the police did not find the evidence at Chhil’s pond but at a different location, but still used it to arrest the Candlelight official. The lawyer also claimed that it was not a crime if someone used electric fishing equipment in their personal fish pond.
“If a person is illegally fishing in a restricted area then yes that is against the law but if a person just fishes on his own property and even if he is doing illegal fishing, that is not against the law,” Sokong said.
Speaking to VOD, Chhil said the Appeal Court announced his release on July 11 but was only allowed to leave prison on July 21 because officials were trying to get a bribe from his family. The family paid $125 to the provincial prison and court, he said.
“I cannot talk much as I might face a lot of obstacles that they might summon me for questioning again,” Chhil said.
He said the police initially showed no interest to arrest him on April 12 but made him and his son sit in a boat. They later returned with the electric fishing equipment and then took them both to the police station, even though he protested the detention of his son.
At first, the police called his wife to negotiate his release, he said, but they were told to not release Chhil and push a case of illegal fishing.
“They brought me in a room and told me to not say I was fishing in the pond but told me to say that I was illegally fishing,” Chhil said.”They wrote a note and asked me to sign it, but I refused to sign it and they threatened violence.”
Other officials tried to convince him to admit to the illegal fishing, but he refused and was eventually handcuffed and detained.
He said prison was hard because he had physical ailments and once other inmates figured out he was an opposition official they didn’t treat him as nice.
“They kept insulting me about what I get from being with an opposition party and I got angry and we raised our voices at each other but other prisoners stopped us,” Chhil said.