Cambodian rights groups on Monday demanded the authorities make public the whereabouts of nearly two dozen people arrested during recent police crackdowns on striking factory workers, saying that they should be granted immediate access.
Family members, lawyers, and physicians have been denied information about the location of 23 people held during clashes last week in the capital Phnom Penh between police and workers demanding higher salaries, according to the rights groups Licadho and the Community Legal Education Centre (CLEC).
“We are extremely concerned for the health and personal safety of all those held,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge said of the detained garment and footwear workers.
“Immediate and regular access to families, doctors, and lawyers is a key safeguard against torture and ill treatment. Right now these men have no access to the outside world, and in the current climate anything could happen. Authorities need to put an immediate end to this secrecy.”
No information has been released about the location or the medical condition of the 23 men arrested on Jan. 2 and 3—at least three of whom were rights defenders Vorn Pao, Theng Soveoun, and Chan Putisak—since they appeared in court, the statement said.
It identified the 10 men arrested on Jan. 2 in front of Yak Jin factory on National Road 4 as Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun, Chan Puthisak, Chhim Theurn, Yong Sam An, Reth Roatha, Nakry Vanda, Lun San, Teng Chany, and Sokun Sombath Piseth.
All appeared before the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Jan. 3 and were charged with “intentional violence with aggravating circumstances” and “intentional damage with aggravating circumstances.”
Thirteen more men were arrested on Jan. 3 during clashes in which at least four men were shot dead by security forces and at least 39 injured near the city’s Canadia Industrial Park, the statement said.
They were identified as Mam Piseth, Neup Sokhourn, Phang Tren, Ty Sinoun, Heng Ratha, Pang Vanny, Pheurn Da, Cheurn Yong, Ros Sophoan, Prong Sarath, Chea Sarath, Yon Chea, and Bou Savith. They were brought to court in Phnom Penh on Jan. 4 under the same charges as the 10 others.
All 23 men face up to 18 months of pretrial detention and up to five years’ imprisonment as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to $2,500, the statement said.
Health ‘at risk’
According to the statement, several of the detained men are at risk of “serious health complications” as a result of beatings by police witnessed by Licadho staff.
“Some of those arrested were savagely beaten during their arrest and are in urgent need of medical care,” it said, adding that one juvenile—17-year-old Yon Chea—is among those being held and that most are young garment factory workers, many under the age of 30.
The rights group cited unconfirmed reports which indicate the men may have been sent to Correctional Centre 1 (CC1) in Phnom Penh or Correctional Centre 3 (CC3) in Kampong Cham province, which it said were “among the harshest prisons in Cambodia.”
It said that CC3 is located in a remote area and is difficult to access. CC3 has held only convicted adult prisoners, and the rights groups said that “no juveniles should be held in CC1.”
“If true, the transfer of prisoners to a far-flung location like CC3 is a calculated, sickening development,” said Naly Pilorge.
“These men have not yet been convicted of any crimes and as such they should be held separately from convicted prisoners. The withholding of information is wholly unnecessary and clearly designed to hide injuries, facilitate torture, and create a climate of fear.”
As rights groups demanded information regarding the 23 detainees, authorities in the capital temporarily arrested five prominent land rights activists as they attempted to deliver a petition calling on the French Embassy to intervene on behalf of their release.
Tep Vanny, Yorm Bopha, Pan Chunreth, Bop Chorvy, and Sok Srey Leap—representatives of the city’s Boeung Kak Lake community residents who were evicted to make way for a luxury development project—were arrested Monday morning as they marched to the embassy.
They were released eight hours later at around 5:00 p.m. following intervention by the United Nations rights office and rights groups, Tep Vanny told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Tep Vanny said that she and the other four activists had been freed “without any conditions,” but were asked not to march or protest.
“We still have plans—we will struggle until we have justice and solutions,” she said.
All five women had been previously convicted and sent to prison for their involvement in peaceful protests.
Ban on demonstrations
The temporary arrest of the five women activists follows a Jan. 4 ban on all demonstrations in Phnom Penh by the Ministry of Interior until “public order and security is restored.”
It was prompted by the Jan. 3 deadly violence, the first since thousands of workers began to stage strikes at factories two weeks ago to demand the government increase their minimum wage to U.S. $160 a month, double the current rate.
The Cambodia Daily cited the Garment Manufacturer Association in Cambodia (GMAC), which represents factory owners, as defending the use of force against the striking workers at a press conference on Sunday, saying protesters refused to obey verbal warnings from the authorities and had become violent.
“After they [the protesters] were throwing rocks and stones and stuff, how do you expect them to respond,” GMAC Secretary-General Ken Loo said, when asked whether police were right to open fire on the protesters.
Loo said that damage to factories caused by striking workers and lost revenue due to the work stoppage had resulted in U.S. $200 million in losses since the unrest began.
Last week, GMAC issued a public request to the Minister of Finance asking for permission to transfer its existing work orders to manufacturers in other countries in order to meet demand.
But according to the Wall Street Journal, the strikes have fizzled out following the violent crackdown, citing Loo as saying that around 80 percent of its more than 500 represented factories nationwide had reopened on Monday, even though only around 50 to 60 percent of workers returned.
Union leaders said Monday that they will not hold discussions about the minimum wage dispute amid government lawsuits targeting them for “inciting violence” and leading the strike movement.
“Talks with the Ministry of Labor and other union leaders should be held when there are no [government] threats or lawsuits,” Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) President Rong Chhun wrote to the ministry after recently receiving a summons for a Jan. 14 court hearing on charges of provoking violence.
A day after last week’s deadly crackdown, the government dispersed supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from their main protest site at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh and banned further street demonstrations.
The authorities also issued summonses to CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha—who have led daily rallies calling on Hun Sen to quit and hold new elections—to appear in court to answer charges of inciting social unrest.
The crackdown prompted the CNRP to call off mass demonstrations scheduled on Sunday.
CNRP leaders have dismissed pro-government media reports in recent days that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha were preparing to flee the country amid the crisis.
Kem Sokha said there are no plans to resume mass demonstrations yet, adding that any action can only be taken when the situation “becomes normalized.”
The U.S. Embassy has also refuted reports that some lawmakers had sought refuge there on Saturday.
“We appeal to the government to facilitate the implementation of the freedom of speech and peaceful gatherings,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh told RFA, adding that Washington was saddened by the events of the past several days.
The opposition maintains that the July 28 elections were stolen by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) because of fraud and other irregularities which included more than a million names missing from the ballot registration.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.