Cambodian Activists Beaten in Prison, Others Denied Bail as Courts Continue to Punish Dissent

Cambodian Activists Beaten in Prison, Others Denied Bail as Courts Continue to Punish Dissent CNRP activists' wives confront Phnom Penh security guards who prevent them from marching to the EU Embassy, Dec. 18, 2020.
Photo: RFA

A spokesman for Cambodia’s Prison Department denied reports that two environmental activists had been attacked and beaten by other inmates after refusing to end a hunger strike launched to commemorate Human Rights Day on Dec. 10.

So Metta and Chhoeun Daravy were assaulted on Dec. 6, four days into their eight-day strike, but resumed their protest immediately afterward, So Metta’s sister Eng Vanndy told RFA on Thursday after visiting her sister in jail.

“Prisoners convicted of murder and drug crimes assaulted them, and she was severely beaten, especially around her face,” Eng Vanndy said, referring to So Metta and adding that her sister and the other woman were separated during the attack.

“I worry for her life. Every time I visit, I never hear good news. I am very sad, and I want to see her released,” Eng Vanndy said.

Prison Department spokesman Nuth Savna denied the two activists had been attacked, saying that So Metta had refused to return to her cell after a break, and that guards had ordered other prisoners to “carry her there.”

“I investigated the incident, and was told that other inmates had carried So Metta back inside her cell because it was time for the cells to be closed,” he said, adding that So Metta had attacked other prisoners herself while they were taking her back to her cell.

Also on Friday, a Cambodian appeals court refused to grant bail to five activists arrested in September after criticizing the government’s handling of a border dispute with Vietnam.

Kean Sothea, the mother of activist Tha Lavy—a member of Khmer Tavarak, the Khmer Student Intelligent League, and arrested with So Metta—urged the government and the courts to free her son, now scheduled for trial on Dec. 30.

“I want the court to release him so he can return to school,” she said.

Freedom of expression

Ny Sokha of the Cambodian rights group Adhoc said he was disappointed by the court’s refusal to grant bail to the activists, saying they had only expressed their views according to the law and had not committed the crimes alleged by the court.

“All we can do is urge the government again and again to consider dropping all charges against these detainees, who are simply human rights and political activists,” he said.

“They were exercising their right to freedom of expression to help society and to criticize the government, based on democratic principles.”

Fifteen wives of jailed members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) meanwhile resumed their weekly Friday protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, calling on the court to free their loved ones.

Police confiscated the protesters’ banners and photos of their husbands and blocked them  after they tried to march together to the Embassy of the European Union, but members of the group then went separately to the embassy by taxi.

One woman, the wife of jailed CNRP activist Seng Chanthorn, told RFA that police had shoved and threatened her during their protest, adding that authorities should instead help to protect people who peacefully express their views.

The court should free her husband and all other prisoners detained only for criticizing government actions, she said.

“Even though we were harassed, we will continue to protest to demand they give our husbands back, because they are innocent,” she said.

'They still stand up'

Local rights group LICADHO in a report released this month said the arrest and imprisonment of more than a dozen human rights defenders in the second half of the year had “capped off three years of increasing repression by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of peaceful advocacy and activism.”

But Cambodians across all sectors of the country still stand up to demand their basic rights in the face of repressive laws enforced by government-controlled courts, LICADHO said.

“Many have lost years of their lives to Cambodia’s overcrowded prisons,” the rights group said. “Others have faced physical attacks and life-threatening injuries.”

Reached for comment, government spokesman Phay Siphan slammed LICADHO’s report, saying that Cambodian authorities base their actions in cases like these on the country’s laws, and that LICADHO was only trying to secure more funding from its donors by releasing its report.

“This is just a way for them to get money for staff salaries,” Phay Siphan said.

“These are only LICADHO’s thoughts and recommendations, and there is nothing here that we need to consider. The government enforces the laws, and the courts have the right to make their own decisions on whether to release suspects or not,” he said.

The latest wave of arrests comes three years after CNPR President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government with the help of Washington. Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned his party in November that year for its supposed role in the scheme.

The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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