Authorities in Cambodia on Friday violently dispersed the wives and family members of detained opposition activists holding a protest in of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to call for their immediate and unconditional release, according to members of the group.
Seventeen Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activists have been held in pretrial detention at Prey Sar Prison on charges of “incitement to commit a felony” since early this year after voicing views critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership—accusations rights groups say represent restrictions on their freedom of expression.
Friday’s rally marked the sixth protest organized by the family members—the previous five of which featured police officers confiscating or destroying banners and ordering the crowd to disband.
But Prumh Chantha, the wife of one of the activists, told RFA’s Khmer Service that this time around 30 of the court’s security guards aggressively dragged the protesters away from the building on the ground, leaving at least five of them injured with cuts and bruises.
Prumh Chantha was among those injured. She said four guards pulled her from the court’s fence so violently that she can barely walk and has been receiving medical care through local rights group Licadho.
“We want their freedom returned to them,” she said.
“We are all Khmer people, but these men violently attacked unarmed women. [The guards] abused us and dragged us by our feet, as if we were animals.”
After leaving the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the group marched to the British Embassy, where five representatives were permitted to enter and present petitions to staff calling for an intervention in the cases of their loved ones.
Speaking to RFA, Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet rejected claims of police brutality during the protest.
“I advised the authorities not to provoke violence against our citizens,” he said, adding that police officers did not drag any women away from the court’s fence.
“The guards took pictures as evidence. Their allegations are not true.”
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Licadho’s Human Rights Investigation Team, called Friday’s action an abuse of the freedom of expression and said that in a democracy, people should have the right to peaceful protests.
“I urge the authorities not to use any violence against any demonstrations, regardless of whether organizers have asked for permission, to avoid further criticism,” he said.
Friday’s protest came as Cambodia’s Appeals Court denied a bail request for CNRP activists Sun Thun and Peat Mab, who were arrested by authorities in Kampong Thom and Siem Reap in May and June, respectively, on charges of incitement and treason for supporting the repatriation of CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy.
The CNRP was disbanded by the Supreme Court in November 2017 for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government. Sam Rainsy is living in self-imposed exile in France to avoid a string of charges and convictions he says are politically motivated.
The pair’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, told RFA his clients plan to appeal their cases to the Supreme Court because they consider the cases against them “unjust.”
“The court didn’t agree with our request, so we will appeal to the Supreme Court to further examine the case,” he said.
Sun Thun’s son, Thun Theany, said his father is innocent and called on the court to set him free.
“The decision was unjust because the court is under the government’s influence,” he said.
Campaign to end impunity
The actions over the CNRP activists’ detention came as CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua called on Hun Sen to end impunity in Cambodia, where rights campaigners say that the prime minister’s political cronies and the wealthy benefit from a justice system that is aligned with their interests.
The CNRP launched a campaign on July 10, to align with the fourth anniversary of the murder of political commentator and social activist Kem Ley, who was shot to death in broad daylight on July 10, 2016 while having a morning coffee at a Caltex gas station mini market—days after publicly criticizing Hun Sen and his family for abuse of power and unexplained wealth.
Authorities charged a former soldier named Oeuth Ang with Kem Ley’s murder and sentenced him to life in prison in March 2017. In May last year, court authorities rejected his appeal and upheld his sentence, but many in Cambodia do not believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt.
“May Hun Sen be informed that justice is for everyone—we would like to invite him to join us in finding justice for Cambodia,” Mu Sochua told RFA.
“Let it start from Hun Sen, who is the leader of the country. Please demonstrate your political will to end impunity in Cambodia. There are international tools, including those from the U.N., that are at our disposal. We can start by commissioning independent investigations. Don’t stymie efforts for such investigations.”
The “End Impunity in Cambodia” campaign, which recorded more than 5,000 signatures through a petition as of Friday, calls for Hun Sen and his allies to be tried before an independent justice system for “each victim murdered by the Hun Sen regime since the signing of the Paris Peace Accords of 1991, which ended civil war and established democratic elections in the country.
“We demand justice through independent investigations of these killings,” the petition says, adding that “there will be no real peace until we create an end to impunity together.”
The petition calls on signatories of the Paris Peace Accords to impose visa sanctions and freeze the assets of Hun Sen “and those directly implicated in the extrajudicial killings.”
In response to the petition, Hun Sen has called for justice for himself, noting that he was the intended victim of an assassination in 1998.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun and Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.