Authorities in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Thursday arrested half a dozen youth activists taking part in a peaceful protest to demand the release of union leader Rong Chhun, as he appeared before the court for a preliminary hearing related to charges of “incitement.”
The six activists, all members of the civil society group Khmer Thavarak, were among some 30 peaceful protesters in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, calling on authorities to drop charges against the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) and set him free.
Rong Chhun was officially charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” under Article 495 of Cambodia’s Penal Code and jailed at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh on Aug 1, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border. His arrest has prompted near daily protests.
Rong Chhun was brought to the court for questioning on Thursday but kept out of the public eye and away from reporters who had assembled there. His lawyer, Sam Sokong, told RFA’s Khmer Service that his client rejected the charges against him and also refused to answer questions he called “irrelevant to the case.”
While Rong Chhun was inside the court, a large number of security personnel from an elite unit known as “Khan 7 January” violently dispersed protesters and forced them away from the building, Chheoun Daravy, who was the first to be arrested on Thursday, told RFA. Those who tried to stay, she said, were beaten and kicked, leaving at least 10 people injured.
Chheoun Daravy told RFA before her arrest that she had been “slapped” by the security personnel, who also took her backpack containing money, her identification, and cards for accessing her bank account.
“It is really ridiculous that the security forces of Khan 7 January acted so lowly,” she said.
“I will not file complaint against them if they return my bag to me. If they do not do so, I will show to the public that the government has employed thief-like security forces. Their actions are like those of bandits and are unacceptable.”
Later, Chheoun Daravy returned to an area across from the courthouse where she began livestreaming on Facebook to explain what had happened to her and demand the return of her property. However, a group of men wearing civilian clothing grabbed her cell phone, pulled her into a waiting car, and sped off, according to fellow protester Sar Metta.
“Five men got out of the car and began to beat her and pull her by her hair, before pushing her into the car and taking her away,” she said, adding that there had been additional men inside the vehicle.
“We failed to help her because we were forcibly pushed back by them. They were all big and strong men while we were just a small group of women.”
Within hours of Chheoun Daravy’s arrest, city authorities took an additional five members of Khmer Thavarak into custody. All six were detained at the headquarters of the National Police Commission.
National Police Commission spokesperson Chhay Kim Kheoun told RFA that Chheoun Daravy had been charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest.”
“Those members of civil society groups who accuse the police of violating the constitution need themselves to review Cambodia’s laws,” he said.
Sar Thet, spokesperson for the Phnom Penh Police Commission said that the other five Khmer Thavarak members would be released after being “educated about why they must stop taking part in protests” for Rong Chhun.
“The relevant authorities plan to release the five of them after they promised to stop protesting, except for Chheoun Daravy, who will be sent court,” he said.
Soeung Sengkaruna, a spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that the violent crackdown on a peaceful protest and use of plainclothes police to arrest Chheoun Daravy without an arrest warrant are “unlawful.”
“As competent authorities, why do you need to hide your identities instead of proceeding in a legal and proper way,” he questioned.
“According to witnesses they pulled her violently by the hair. This is very unusual. Such actions will only prompt more anguish in our society.”
A search warrant for Chheoun Daravy’s home was later issued by Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating Judge Pich Vicheathor, formally announcing the charges against her.
In a reminder of the international costs of the crackdown on civil society, the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Thursday condemned Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government for failing to implement reforms required by the European Union to avoid trade sanctions that went into effect a day earlier.
The withdrawal of duty-free, quota-free access to the EU’s market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for some 20 percent of Cambodia’s exports—a decision that was announced in February—went into effect because the country’s government failed to reverse rollbacks on democracy and other freedoms, the European Commission (EC) said Wednesday. Affected exports include goods from Cambodia’s vital garment and footwear industries.
The CNRP called the reinstatement of tariffs “another dark day in Cambodia’s history” in a statement on Thursday, saying the rights and well-being of all Cambodians had been put in jeopardy because of Hun Sen’s “ambition to remain in power in a ruthless authoritarian way.”
“This measure accepted consciously and approved in full by Hun Sen will spell misery for hundreds of thousands of hard-working Cambodian families,” the statement said.
“Many of them—already in heavy debt—are likely to lose their income and cross the line into poverty.”
The CNRP called on the EU to sanction Hun Sen and other officials deemed responsible for rights violations in Cambodia through visa restrictions and the freezing of their assets. The CNRP also urged the government to reinstate its party and initiate a process of national reconciliation through inclusive dialogue.
Hun Sen—who has ruled the country since 1985—has said that EU demands to maintain the EBA are unreasonable and an encroachment on Cambodia’s internal affairs, and has continued to target members of the CNRP, which was dissolved in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple the government, as well as other activists who have spoken out against him.
The move to ban the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Seventeen CNRP activists have been held in pretrial detention at Cambodia’s Prey Sar Prison for “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” since early this year after slamming Hun Sen’s leadership and his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, Rong Chhun had written to Hun Sen calling on the government to proactively address the issues that the EU has said prompted it to end Cambodia’s trade privileges.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.