The U.N. special envoy for human rights in Cambodia on Monday met with about 100 activists in the capital Phnom Penh who sought his help to gain the release of nearly two dozen people arrested during recent violent government crackdowns on striking factory workers.
Envoy Surya Subedi accepted petitions on the issue from the activists at the U.N.’s Human Rights Office as a consortium of 65 nongovernmental organizations issued a joint statement asking the government to investigate violence used in suppressing strikes by garment workers and demonstrations by the main opposition party demanding new elections and the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Subedi, the U.N.’s special envoy for human rights in Cambodia, told the activists that he would, in his meetings with government officials, raise the issue of the 23 who had been detained, some of whom were badly beaten and left without access to needed medical treatment for several days.
“I look forward to reading your petitions, and thank you for those who came to meet me,” Subedi said.
“I will be meeting with all stakeholders, including the government, and I will bring your concerns to the attention of the authorities.”
Subedi said he would “monitor the situation as closely as possible” and “do what I can for you,” adding that his mandate from the U.N. is to “make sure that the people in this country are able to enjoy the rights and the freedoms guaranteed in both the constitution of Cambodia and in the international human rights treaties.”
Security forces on Jan. 3 shot dead four people and wounded 40 others during a crackdown on a strike in the outskirts of the city by garment workers calling for a wage increase that was backed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
In connection with the strike—and worker unrest a day earlier at another factory near the capital—authorities arrested 23 people and have since accused them of stirring up violence and causing damage to property.
Among those held were human rights defender and president of the Independent and Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA) Vorn Pao, Theng Savoeun from the Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), and Chan Puthisak, a representative of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak Lake community residents who were evicted to make way for a luxury development project.
Security in the capital has been increased since the violent crackdowns, with military officers being stationed at the industrial park in Veng Sreng where the shooting occurred, and sources said plainclothes police had been deployed to monitor meetings between the activists and the visiting U.N. official on Monday.
Last week, family members and physicians were allowed to meet with the 23 for the first time following concerns raised by rights groups and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) over their whereabouts.
Amongst the activists who met with Subedi on Monday was Prak Sovannary, wife of human rights defender Vorn Pao.
Prak Sovannary told RFA’s Khmer Service that her husband’s health condition was “deteriorating” due to a serious injury he had suffered during the crackdown, and she urged the government to release him on bail.
NGO officials have said that they will gather to organize more protests if the government refuses to release the men, despite a Ministry of Interior ban on all demonstrations in Phnom Penh “until public order and security is restored.”
The 65 NGOs in their joint statement condemned the government’s “use of armed force and escalating violence against the Cambodian people,” citing the recent crackdowns.
The groups—including local organizations ADHOC and Community Legal Education Center, and international groups Transparency International and Oxfam—called on authorities to “release the 23 detainees immediately without any conditions” and to form an independent investigation committee “to find those responsible for this violence.”
They demanded that the perpetrators of the violence be “brought to justice without delay and provide redress to those injured and to the families of the people killed.”
The statement said the government should stop the use of violence and excessive force, as well as the arbitrary arrest of civilians, and honor its commitments to domestic and international conventions on the use of force by law enforcement officials.
It also encouraged foreign diplomats to visit the 23 detainees in prison to ensure their well-being and urged overseas textile buyers to consider worker demands for wage increase and improved factory conditions.
Subedi is on a six-day fact-finding mission to Cambodia, which began Sunday, as part of an ongoing program of monitoring progress on human rights in the country.
During the visit he is expected to meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen and observe a court hearing on Tuesday in which CNRP president Sam Rainsy, his deputy Kem Sokha, and several union leaders face charges of inciting recent protests.
The opposition has both backed worker strikes calling for wage increases and held its own nonviolent mass protests calling on Hun Sen to quit and to hold new elections following disputed polls in July last year, which it maintains were marred by voting fraud and other irregularities.
A day after security forces shot into the crowd of striking workers, authorities cleared CNRP supporters out of their protest camp in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, but the opposition has since held rallies elsewhere in the country.
The CNRP on Monday confirmed in a statement that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha would comply with the order to appear at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and called on supporters to refrain from unruly protests which could lead to another crackdown.
“The CNRP continues to adhere to nonviolent principles to seek peaceful solutions. So compatriots, youths, students who will be monitoring the court process—please do so in a nonviolent and orderly manner,” the statement said.
“The CNRP’s stance is to respect human rights, and to seek justice for the people who … were killed and injured in the crackdown led by [Hun Sen’s] ruling Cambodian People’s Party.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.