Cambodian authorities briefly detained a prominent activist monk on Thursday after he joined protests against the jailing of 13 women over a long-running forced land eviction case.
Loun Savath had participated in the protests staged by several hundred people from the Boeung Kak Lake community in Phnom Penh who were evicted from their homes, which are being torn down to make way for a residential development project.
Authorities accused the monk of "causing instability” by protesting against a court decision to jail 13 women members of the Boeung Kak community for their role in another protest earlier this week.
Police officers and monks from the Ministry of Cults and Religion forced Loun Savath into a car at about 10:00 a.m. and took him to the Wat Botum pagoda.
Loun Savath, who was not allowed to return home until late in the evening, said that the authorities locked him up for six hours.
“Today, I received massive pressure and I was locked inside a room. I couldn’t walk anywhere and the authorities didn’t allow rights groups or representatives of [foreign] embassies to see me.”
“They accused me of being a mastermind in leading villagers to protest,” he said. “This is not about Buddhism, it is a political issue.”
Municipal monk officials threatened to have Loun Savath defrocked as a monk, but released him after he put his thumbprint on a statement assuring that he will not join future protests, the monk said.
“If I hadn’t agreed to not participate in the protests in the future, I would have been defrocked and sent to jail.”
“The authorities have violated my rights and freedom. They have abused and threatened me,” he said.
Loun Savath, the recipient of a prominent award from the New-York based Human Rights Watch last year, was banned in April from entering pagodas in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh after he participated in land protests
He was unfazed despite his detention, saying he would not stop his activism even though he was concerned about his personal safety.
“I won’t stop helping protect society from rights abuses. I will use my knowledge to advocate and help the people,” he said.
Chan Soveth, a member of the Cambodian rights watchdog ADHOC, condemned the monk’s detention, saying it was illegal.
“Police arrested venerable Loun Savath without showing any warrant. It is illegal. It is a surprise to the villagers,” he said.
“People cried” when they witnessed the police pushing him into the car, said Chan Soveth, who was at the scene.
The action was taken to threaten other villagers from taking part in future land eviction protests.
“Loun Savath was hit on his head and forced into the car,” Chan Soveth said.
“The police didn’t respect him as a monk, they didn’t respect the Buddhist robes,” he added.
A Phnom Penh court earlier Thursday ordered the 13 women jailed between one year and two and a half years. They were taken to the Prey Sar prison.
The hearing was held under tight security with more than 500 armed police officers surrounding the courthouse.
The women were among 20,000 Boeung Kak residents who were evicted from their homes or are at risk of losing them since a Cambodian-Chinese company was granted a 99-year lease in the area in 2007.
Residents have staged high-profile protests since the company suddenly began draining the lake in 2008.
Human rights group LICADHO’s senior investigator Am Sam Ath, who monitored the court hearing, said the conviction of the 13 women was not acceptable.
“This is injustice for the victims because they are accused of illegally encroaching on private property. They didn’t do that,” he said.
The villagers want to rebuild their houses on the eviction site because they have been waiting for a long time for a solution to the dispute, he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.