Eight human rights officers and activists clad in black were arrested on Monday during “Black Monday” protests in Phnom Penh, the first in a campaign to free four fellow rights workers and an election official who were jailed late last month on charges widely believed to be politically motivated.
The group—arrested en route to a planned protest at Prey Sar prison, where four officials from the rights group Adhoc are incarcerated—were later released, officials said. Those arrested included two Cambodian human rights workers, two of their foreign colleagues and four local land rights activists.
Ee Sarom, executive director of housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, and Thav Kimsan, deputy director of advocacy for rights group Licadho, were bundled into a police van at about 8:15 a.m. following an argument with Dangkao district officials at a checkpoint near the prison.
Three protesters from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood—Bou Sorphea, Kong Chantha and Song Sreyleap—and Sor Son from Borei Keila were arrested in Dangkao and Daun Penh districts shortly before 9 a.m., Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said.
At about 11:30 a.m., Mathias Pfeifer, a German adviser to local rights group Licadho, and Anna Maria Pettersson, a Swedish adviser for the group, were both detained and taken to the Interior Ministry’s immigration department after being spotted wearing black T-shirts, said Uk Heisela, chief of investigations at the department.
Barriers were set up in the morning along the road leading to Prey Sar, ensuring black-clad protesters and monks were kept far from the jail. Passing members of the public were also pulled over and grilled by police if they happened to be wearing dark clothes.
Major General Heisela said the foreign offenders, Ms. Pettersson and Mr. Pfeifer, were arrested for wearing black shirts, but sent to the immigration department for failing to produce their passports.
“They were wearing black shirts and could not produce any documents so police decided to send them for questioning at the immigration department,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s technical supervisor, said the pair were released at about 7 p.m. The Cambodian officers and activists were released at about 6:30, he added.
Deputy municipal governor Khuong Sreng said police had not technically arrested anyone.
“We already released them back home. We released them after we compiled the report,” Mr. Sreng said. “We did not arrest them, we just detained them for questioning and then released them the same day.”
The latest arrests come as the government has ramped up its investigation into a sex scandal involving deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha. The four Adhoc officials, together with National Election Committee deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya, were jailed last week for allegedly conspiring to bribe the supposed 25-year-old mistress to deny the affair.
A U.N. official was also charged in absentia over the case, while an opposition commune chief was imprisoned for allegedly delivering money to the alleged mistress’ mother. Mr. Sokha and two other opposition lawmakers have been summoned to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning over the scandal.
On Sunday, the government said the Black Monday protests would be viewed as a rebellion and an attempt to foment a “color revolution.”
Contacted by telephone on Monday prior to the release of the rights workers on Monday, General Sopheak defended the arrests and lambasted “arrogant” rights groups.
“Like you know, their group broadcasted to incite the people to wear black for Monday to release officials,” he said. “They went crazy with freedom of expression. They did not think they are under the law that controls them. They are the people who violate the law.”
Gen. Sopheak then drew analogies between the peaceful protest and the civil wars that have raged in Syria and Libya since the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East in 2011.
“Do you want it like Syria? Do you want it like Libya?” Gen. Sopheak asked, going on to rail against the groups that organized the protest.
“You receive small amounts of money from overseas: You are arrogant. You are drunk with human rights and bring war into the country. It is impossible. Please stay in the prison,” he said.
The arrests were met with concern and condemnation both in Cambodia and abroad.
“It’s not surprising that Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP are finally showing their true dictatorial colors with this kind of heavy handed crackdown on peaceful protesters,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
Maina Kiai, the U.N.’s special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said he was disturbed by claims from government spokesman Phay Siphan on Sunday that the protests were tantamount to “an urban rebellion.”
“Allowing peaceful dissent— expressed through speech, assembly and association—is not only every government’s obligation under international law, it also reduces the possibility of violent rebellion by creating a more inclusive society,” Mr. Kiai wrote.
“It is disturbing to see Cambodia taking steps in the wrong direction on #BlackMonday,” he wrote.
Standing among protestors at the police checkpoint in Dangkao just minutes before Mr. Sarom and Mr. Kimsan were arrested, Licadho director Naly Pilorge spoke of the complications arising from the government’s creeping constraints on politics and civil society.
“It’s interesting to note that all the people wearing black are being stopped, and a lot of them aren’t part of the campaign. It becomes really difficult when a country’s police force restricts people from moving because of the color they choose to wear,” Ms. Pilorge said.
“What are they scared of? What is our government afraid of? We are the voters, they need to serve us, and we’re just a bunch of people including civil society—except for the monks—who are wearing black,” she said.
“Is this a democracy or is this a facade of a democracy if we’re blocked for the color we choose to wear?”
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