Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of Cambodia’s parliament building in the capital Phnom Penh on Friday calling on lawmakers to push Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to release 16 activists, monks, and opposition party officials jailed in recent weeks.
Around 300 land campaigners, students, and union members protested at the National Assembly, or legislature, calling the arrests and sentences politically motivated and demanding that the prisoners be freed unconditionally.
Seven activists were each sentenced Tuesday to a year in prison for obstructing traffic during a protest, while three others and a monk were sentenced a day later for “aggravating a rebellion” while demonstrating for their release.
An additional two monks were thrown in prison Wednesday and face charges of “participation in criminal association” for a planned protest over a land dispute.
Three officials from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been detained in the last two weeks for “inciting violence” during a July 15 protest by party supporters at Freedom Park in the capital.
Sia Phearum, secretariat director of local civil society group Housing Rights Task Force, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the recent arrests and convictions were “unjust,” citing the seven women activists sentenced Tuesday—one day after their arrest for blocking a busy street during a protest in Phnom Penh.
“The court should have used the peaceful demonstration law against those convicted, not the traffic law, when they protested against the flooding,” he said, referring to the activists’ claims that a development project backed by a ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmaker had flooded their Boueng Kak community.
“The court is changing white to black and made arbitrary arrests.”
During Friday’s demonstration, protesters also delivered a petition to parliament’s Commission on Investigation and Anti-Corruption calling for the panel to summon Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana and Phnom Penh Municipal Court Director Chiv Kheng to testify about the arrests and convictions.
Commission member Vann Narith accepted the petition and pledged that the panel would examine the protesters requests, adding that its decision would be announced next week.
“We will discuss [the requests] within the commission and we will find a common group to send a letter to the government,” he said.
Protest organizers told RFA that Friday’s turnout was smaller than expected because authorities had erected roadblocks in parts of the city to prevent supporters from accessing the National Assembly.
They vowed to gather supporters again on Nov. 16 in front of Prey Sar Prison, where the 16 are jailed, to hold a Buddhist ceremony appealing for their release.
On Friday, New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed authorities for the arrests and convictions, and called on donors to Cambodia to take Hun Sen’s government to task for its policy of harassing, arbitrarily detaining, and summarily trying peaceful protesters.
The group noted that the crackdown had come amid what it called a campaign by Hun Sen’s ruling CPP to pressure the CNRP to scale back demands for reforms to the country’s electoral system, as part of a deal made in July to end a political standoff following disputed elections a year earlier.
“The Cambodian government’s latest crackdown on peaceful protest makes a mockery of promises of democratic reform,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The country’s donors should publicly condemn this escalating wave of abuse. Failure to speak out will only encourage the ruling party to further close political space and block any hopes for progress toward a genuine multiparty democracy.”
Human Rights Watch said the crackdown has included a range of rights violations, including the violent breakup of peaceful protests by security forces, “trumped-up charges” against protesters filed by authorities, and the routine denial of bail to those charged.
Cambodia’s courts convicted the protesters after summary trials that did not meet international standards and handed them maximum prison sentences, it said.
The rights group called the allegations against the opposition party and social activists “clearly politically motivated,” and urged authorities to unconditionally drop all charges and order the release of those jailed or imprisoned.
“The government’s actions in the face of peaceful protest are that of a dictatorship, not a democracy,” Adams said.
“The breakup of protests and the summary trials harken back to the CPP’s one-party state in the 1980s. Are donors going to keep silently writing the checks that prop up the Hun Sen government, or are they finally going to find their voices and demand an end to crude repression?”
Reported by Khe Sokhorng for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.