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PHNOM PENH, July 27, 2004 — ; Cambodian authorities on Tuesday released two journalists and a human rights worker after coercing them to confess to human-trafficking. The three men, including a reporter for Radio Free Asia (RFA), were detained as they tried to reach a group of 17 Vietnamese asylum-seekers hiding in the border areas of the country.
"The chief of the military post that was holding us brought a statement [for us] to sign. It stated that we had engaged in human-trafficking and failed to inform local authorities what we were doing," Cambodian RFA reporter Sok Rathavisal said. "We told him the statement was incorrect, but that we would sign just to acknowledge we had read it. We felt we would not be released otherwise."
Sok Rathavisal, Irishman Kevin Doyle of the English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper, and Cambodian Pen Bunna of the human rights group Adhoc were detained Sunday, deep in the jungle of northeast Cambodia, where many ethnic minority hill-people — ; known as Montagnards — ; have been hiding for weeks after crossing the border.
Cambodian sources said they have been sent to Rattanakiri Province, along with 17 Montagnard asylum-seekers from Vietnam who will now be turned over to U.N. refugee officials.
Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng ordered the men released after speaking — ; along with senior officials from the Cambodian Foreign Ministry — ; with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Asia-Pacific chief, Jean-Marie Fakhourie.
Pen Bunna was trying at the time of their arrest to locate the 17 Montagnard asylum-seekers and bring them to safety, with permission from the governor of Rattanakiri Province, he said.
Pen Bunna had been helping journalists and officials find Montagnards hidden deep in the densely forested region once criss-crossed by the hidden pathways of the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Military officials told the men to write and sign a first document describing their mission up to the time of their arrest, Sok Rathavisal said. Pen Bunna drafted a document, which all three then signed, that noted that they had found the 17 refugees in the "white zone, a buffer or neutral zone between Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri" provinces — ; which the local military commander then changed to "inside Mondulkiri," and changed again the following day to "in Rattanakiri."
"Later on the chief of the post brought another letter and asked us to sign — ; it said that we came to the area without informing authorities and that we conducted illegal trafficking of the Vietnamese refuges," Pen Bunna said.
"We argued with the chief of the station that we came to the area with official permission and didn't engage in any illicit human-trafficking. But at the end we signed and printed our thumbs anyway on the document. We protested that we didn't agree with the document but signed anyway so we could be released," Pen Bunna said.
The UNHCR flew 31 Montagnards to Phnom Penh on Monday and plans to fly another group of 41 there on Wednesday. Around 200 Montagnards have come out of the Cambodian jungle in the last week. They say they were forced to flee persecution in their ancestral homes in the coffee-growing Central Highlands of Vietnam following Easter protests over land and religious rights.
Hanoi has angrily denied reports of persecution and accused the UNHCR of enticing the Montagnards to flee the Central Highlands with offers of asylum in Cambodia. More than 1,000 Montagnards won asylum in the United States after fleeing Cambodia following a similar crackdown in 2001.