Updated at 4:30 p.m. ET on 2014-01-03
Cambodian police shot and killed at least four people and wounded nearly 40 others on Friday as they broke up a strike by garment workers in the first deadly violence since work stoppages began at factories 10 days ago over a dispute on minimum wages, eyewitnesses and rights groups said.
Human rights groups and opposition leader Sam Rainsy condemned the use of lethal force by the authorities as the striking workers armed with sticks, rocks and Molotov cocktails clashed with rifle-wielding police in the Veng Sreng factory district of the capital Phnom Penh.
Local rights group Licadho said it was "the worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in 15 years."
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Sam Rainsy said the party would lodge a complaint with the International Criminal Court "so that those criminals in power who today ordered soldiers to open fire on workers, be prosecuted."
"We are mourning the death of several workers assassinated today by Hun Sen's soldiers," Sam Rainsy charged, calling for "an immediate stop to all violent acts which had sadly led to bloodshed among Khmer people."
Video of the violence captured by RFA's Khmer Service showed police firing at a group of people scrambling from the scene, with one person falling in a pool of blood and surrounded by weeping colleagues and relatives.
A villager, who was among those shot at, said she fainted on being hit but when she regained consciousness, the police beat her.
“When I was running, they shot at me and when I fainted, they poured water on me and assaulted me,” the female villager said. “I suffered under the Pol Pot regime but now Hun Sen’s regime attacked my children,” she said, referring to the Khmer Rouge leader's reign of terror from 1975 to 1979.
Other villagers said that police officers also broke into people's homes and assaulted them during the clashes.
"It was very brutal ... The military police officers are not human, they beat us,” said another villager, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
Call for re-election
The violence came as the CNRP—which is backing the workers' unions in their campaign to seek a doubling of minimum wages—held daily protests demanding Prime Minister Hun Sen step down and call for new elections following accusations that the July 28 poll was tainted by fraud and other irregularities.
Hun Sen has rejected the call for a re-election, saying he was elected to power constitutionally, and the CNRP has vowed to continue protests, suspending moves to hold talks with Hun Sen due to the burst of violence.
Friday's shooting came a day after the military broke up a demonstration outside a factory, beating demonstrators and arresting about a dozen people, including Buddhist monks, according to witnesses from human rights groups.
"If we allow them to continue the strike it will become anarchy," Agence France-Presse quoted military police spokesman Kheng Tito as saying, adding that nine policemen were injured by stones and slingshots.
Kheng Tito also denied to RFA that police officers had tortured some of the arrested protesting workers.
But rights groups and reporters who witnessed the arrest said at least 10 wounded workers had both their hands tied behind their back and were left on the ground.
The police officers poured water on the workers, whose faces were swollen with bruises, as they lay under the intense heat of the sun, the eyewitnesses said.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), said "the assault [on the workers] was a blow to people's freedom.”
“The workers' protest was not serious until the police officers used excessive force,” he said.
Amid risks of growing civil unrest in Phnom Penh in the aftermath of the shootings, civil society groups and rights groups called on security forces and protestors to exercise urgent restraint on both sides to avoid any further bloodshed.
“We condemn this appalling use of extreme lethal force by security forces, said Naly Pilorge, Licadho director. “Security forces must now put an immediate end to the use of live ammunition against civilians and ensure that all those injured are safely transported to hospital without delay.”
Licadho said its monitors witnessed security forces using live ammunition to shoot directly at civilians near the Canadia Industrial Park on Veng Sreng Road at around 10:00 a.m.
"The use of live ammunition was prolonged and no efforts appear to have been made to prevent death and serious injury. Reports suggest that security forces were also injured after being hit with stones," it said.
Licadho said 10 of those arrested during the crackdown on Thursday appeared before Phnom Penh's Municipal Court on Friday morning.
They were charged under provisions of the Penal Code and face up to 18 months of pre-trial detention and up to five years’ imprisonment as well as fines from U.S. $1,000 to U.S. $2,500.
Licadho doctors and lawyers have been denied access to visit them at the 911 military base where they were held.
"Some had been brutally beaten during their arrest and were in urgent need of medical care," the group said. The monks who had been arrested with them were released late Thursday.
"We call on authorities to conduct thorough, prompt and fully independent investigations into all recent incidents of excessive use of force, including who ordered the use of live ammunition and the extent to which force used was proportionate to the threat posed," Licadho said.
"Anyone found responsible for human rights violations must be brought to justice without delay and redress provided to those injured and the families of those killed."
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.