Teen Jailed for Comments Against Father's Political Opponent Freed, Vows to Continue Fight

An autistic Cambodian teenager who was arrested for critical social media comments has been released from jail, the Associated Press reported.

Kak Sovannchhay, 16, walked out of the Prey Sar prison and into the arms of his mother, Prum Chantha. He was seen pumping his right arm in the air and yelling "long live Cambodia" to supporters and the press.

Sovannchhay had been in jail since June after being arrested for comments he made on Telegram that defended his father, opposition politician Kak Komphear, and for sharing Facebook posts criticizing Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. Komphear has been in prison since May of 2020, and Chantha regularly holds protests with her activist group Friday Wives demanding the release of their government-critical husbands.

"I won't stop," the teen told reporters. "I will continue my course."

Sovannchhay has gained critical support from United Nations human rights experts. Many have criticized the Cambodian government for seemingly "weaponizing" its court system against the boy.

Human Rights Watch has also expressed support for Sovannchhay. The organization's deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, said that it was "absolutely outrageous and unacceptable that this autistic boy was arrested and imprisoned in the first place."

In an email to AP, Robertson said that "the case further deepens the reputational damage to Cambodia's courts and prosecutors, who once again showed themselves bereft of any sense of justice in political cases prioritized by the government."

A lawyer representing the family plans to appeal the still-active charges against Sovannchhay.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Kak Reunion
Prum Chantha (front left) stands with her son, Kak Sovannchhay, 16, outside the main prison of Prey Sar on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on November 10, 2021. The autistic Cambodian teenager was released from prison Wednesday after serving time for posting comments critical of the government on social media in a case that has attracted global attention. AP Photo/Heng Sinith

The teen clutched a bouquet of red roses and lilies tightly to his chest and smiled shyly as reporters snapped photos of him.

Hun Sen has been in power for 36 years and has often been accused of heading an authoritarian regime and using the judicial system to stifle opposition.

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy questioned the decision to sentence "a child to prison time for what appears to be politically motivated charges."

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has defended its verdict, saying the teenager had previously been in trouble for online comments. It also noted that his age was taken into consideration in reducing his jail time, and that it had received no medical confirmation of his autism during the trial and said that he appeared to follow the proceedings.

Kak Sovannchhay's trial concluded on October 13, but the court only announced its verdict last week, convicting him of incitement to commit a felony and public insult.

He was sentenced to eight months in prison but was released under sentencing guidelines that include credit for time served.

His mother said even though she is happy that her son is now free, she worries that the conviction will loom over him.

In the meantime, she said she plans to have him resume school but has concerns.

"I don't know if he will be harassed or not by other students when he goes back," she said.

Kak Blessing
Prum Chantha (left) blesses her son Kak Sovannchhay (center right), a teen boy with autism given a suspended sentence over Telegram messages that were deemed insulting to the government, after he was released from Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh on November 10, 2021. Photo by Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP via Getty Images

Editor's Picks

Newsweek cover
  • Newsweek magazine delivered to your door
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts
Newsweek cover
  • Unlimited access to Newsweek.com
  • Ad free Newsweek.com experience
  • iOS and Android app access
  • All newsletters + podcasts