Security guards armed with batons and cattle prods left at least five people injured after they violently dispersed a group of opposition supporters who had gathered for a second day Friday outside Freedom Park in defiance of a ban on rallies in the Cambodian capital, according to sources.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had organized the gathering to mark the start of the May 2-16 campaign period for municipal, provincial, city and district council elections and to protest a January ban on public gatherings.
Hundreds of party supporters had awaited the arrival of a morning march led by party leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha for a rally outside of the heavily barricaded park in Phnom Penh when some 100 armed guards descended on them, sources said.
“At least five people were injured by security guards—including CNRP supporters, one monk and one journalist—as they waited for the march to arrive at Freedom Park,” local rights group Licadho said in a statement.
“The journalist was taken to a hospital while Licadho doctors treated the other injured civilians, including one man who required three stitches.”
Pa Nguon Teang, director of the independent radio Voice of Democracy, told RFA’s Khmer Service that at least one protestor and one of his reporters had been “seriously injured” during the crackdown.
He said the reporter, Lay Samean, and other members of the press had been targeted by the armed guards as they tried to take pictures of the rally, and that doctors at a nearby hospital said that his jaw had been broken.
“This is an unfortunate incident and I condemn the security guards’ violent actions,” Pa Nguon Teang said.
“Our reporter, Lay Samean, was assaulted until he was knocked unconscious. He has bruises everywhere.”
According to the Phnom Penh Post, “several observers were beaten,” including an unaffiliated activist who was “bleeding profusely from the head” and at least two reporters—one of them female, and an American photographer.
The Post quoted Lay Samean as saying that he had been surprised that the armed guards were targeting journalists.
“I just took a photo of their activities when they were beating a monk,” he said.
“When they saw me take a photo of their activity, they rushed to beat me like a robber, and I lost my smartphone as well.”
The report also quoted activist monk Loun Sovath, one of at least two monks attacked by guards, who said that he too had been singled out for taking photos and had been struck on the neck and hand.
After the crackdown, organizers changed the route for the procession and marched for around three hours from the CNRP headquarters through the city to the Royal Palace, where Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha addressed supporters, Licadho said, adding that they had pledged to continue the rally on Saturday.
First day of crackdown
Friday marked the second day in a row that armed guards attacked crowds around Freedom Park, which security forces barricaded with barbed wire on April 30 ahead of a planned Labor Day rally by demonstrators.
CNRP-backed labor unions had been denied permission by city officials to lead the May 1 rally in the park and, instead, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha chose an area near the site to address a crowd of more than 1,000 people.
Following the leaders’ departure, some 100 security guards set upon the demonstrators who had poured into the city’s streets to press for better working conditions for garment workers.
They had also called for an increase in the minimum wage and the release of garment workers and activists detained in strikes in early January, which had prompted a violent crackdown that left five people dead and a ban on demonstrations, as well as the closure of Freedom Park for public rallies.
In the aftermath of the attack, Licadho said doctors treated five injured people, one with stitches to his head.
On Friday, the group said that authorities had extended the barricade around Freedom Park to cover a nearby bridge and the Wat Phnom temple, where hundreds of police armed with tear gas launchers and security guards were stationed.
It said military police were also positioned next to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house and at the Supreme Court near the Royal Palace.
UN weighs in
Friday’s clash came as U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri concluded a five-day visit to Cambodia to probe violence following the disputed July 2013 general elections.
Pansieri, the most senior U.N. human rights official to visit the country since 2010, called for a transparent investigation into the January crackdown on striking workers.
She told reporters on Friday that she was “deeply saddened” to learn of the previous day’s violence in Freedom Park and concerned that journalists were reportedly targeted.
“The use of excessive force raises serious concerns about the role of district security guards in dealing with demonstrations and public order,” she said.
Pansieri said that during her fact-finding mission she had concluded that freedom in Cambodia had deteriorated since the July elections in which Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) was declared the winner by the country’s government-appointed electoral body.
She was particularly concerned over the situation since January.
“I regret having to assess that there has been a deterioration in 2014 in the extent to which freedom of expression and assembly in Cambodia are guaranteed and enjoyed,” she said, adding that she had repeatedly raised the ban on demonstrations in Phnom Penh with the authorities during her visit.
“Recalling State obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, I reiterate the view that the ‘ban’ on demonstrations falls short of the test of legality, necessity, and proportionality,” she said.
“I urge the government to take the necessary measures to remove this ban without further delay and to ensure that all citizens are able to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.