Phnom Penh (AFP) - Five prominent Cambodian rights activists have been released on bail after more than a year in jail, a court official confirmed on Thursday, although they still face prosecution in a case that has drawn widespread criticism.
Four staff and one former employee of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) were jailed in April last year during the fallout of a sex-scandal that engulfed an opposition leader.
Authorities accused the five of encouraging a 25-year-old hairdresser who allegedly had an affair with the politician to deny their tryst, and they were charged with bribing a witness.
Supporters and rights groups accused the government of strongman premier Hun Sen of using the scandal to crack down on a rights group that had become a thorn in the side of his increasingly autocratic administration.
In a surprise move late Thursday, the five were released, greeted by relatives and monks who blessed them with holy water.
"The investigating judge has decided to end the provisional detention of the five suspects," Y Rin, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, told AFP.
He said the five suspects were under court monitoring restrictions and barred from leaving Cambodia without court's permission until their trial.
One of the released, Ny Sokha, struck a defiant tone as he spoke to reporters.
"We received an injustice but we will love our work even more," he said.
International and local rights groups criticised the lengthy pre-trial detention of the five activists while the United Nations described their jailing as "arbitrary".
Hun Sen is one of the world's longest serving leaders, running the impoverished but fast growing nation for the last 32 years.
He tolerates little dissent and in recent years critics and rights activists have found themselves increasingly pursued through the courts.
Amnesty International said some 27 political prisoners had been placed behind bars since 2013, with dozens of ongoing prosecutions against others.
Supporters see the 64-year-old Hun Sen as a beacon of stability while detractors accuse him and a coterie of allies of huge self-enrichment, corruption and autocracy.
The opposition has proven particularly popular among young voters, who often complain about a culture of corruption that only seems to benefit a wealthy elite or those with the right connections.
Hun Sen faces a national election next year and has vowed "civil war" if he is toppled.