As she was being ushered through the departure hall at Phnom Penh International Airport on Wednesday night, Marga Bujosa Segado, a Spanish activist and academic, issued a final message to the authorities deporting her—flipping her middle finger at an official taking her photograph.
“Happily they are all lightweight and wear so big shoes that remain empty,” she wrote on Facebook hours earlier, mocking the immigration officials who kicked her out of the country.
On Monday, Ms. Segado joined a vigil in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood where activists waved U.N. flags while cursing effigies of court officials for their lack of sincerity in investigating the murder of political analyst Kem Ley.
The demonstration was swiftly broken up by officials, who bundled activists Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea into police cars.
While protesting for their release the next day, Ms. Segado was briefly detained and had her passport confiscated by immigration officials.
When she attempted to retrieve it the following morning, she was again detained and promptly put on a plane to Bangkok.
Officials warned on Thursday that Ms. Segado’s punishment should serve as a warning to any foreigners with notions of joining protests against the government.
Kem Sarin, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said there was a blanket ban on such activity.
“Cambodian law does not allow any foreigner who is of a different nationality to join protests or takes action against the state. They can do as they want in their country,” he said.
“What is her role?” he said of Ms. Segado. “She’s not of Cambodian nationality—why did she have to join with them? She should stick to her own job.”
Ms. Segado, a doctoral candidate at the University of Granada’s Institute for Women’s Studies, lived in Boeng Kak and contributed earlier this year to a group study titled “Feminist Perspectives on Social Investigations.” She moved to Asia to work with NGOs in 2009, according to an article in the Spanish journal El Confidencial.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak claimed Ms. Segado would have faced far harsher treatment for engaging in peaceful protests elsewhere in the region.
“We cannot let foreigners decide our fate,” General Sopheak said. “In other countries near Cambodia, if foreigners behaved in this way, they would end up in jail. She is lucky because our law says to simply deport.”
Boeng Kak activist Kong Chantha, 43, said the community had grown fond of the researcher from Majorca, who regularly interviewed them as a part of her research projects.
“She would always walk with us everywhere because she wanted to research our country,” Ms. Chantha said. “The first time she came to Cambodia she saw there were injustices. That’s why she spent a long time with us.”
Despite photos online that show Ms. Segado partaking in multiple protests, Ms. Chantha claimed the Spaniard had no role in organizing them.
“She never planned our protests. I am sad because she merely did research to report on our issues in her country,” she said. “Why did she need to be deported?”
Although Ms. Vanny and Ms. Sophea were jailed on incitement charges on Wednesday for their leading roles in the ongoing “Black Monday” campaign calling for the release of imprisoned rights workers, Ms. Chantha vowed to continue protesting.
“The Black Monday campaign will not end. Now we have another plan to protest for the release of our activists,” she said.
Am Sam Ath, technical adviser for rights group Licadho, denounced the government’s decision to deport Ms. Segado and said there was no law preventing foreigners from engaging in peaceful activism.
“The authorities worry too much. They saw that she was close to the activists and then became afraid that this could cause a color revolution,” he said. “Any campaign for advocacy, foreigners can join it.”
Although critical of the decision to deport Ms. Segado, political analyst Ou Virak said he believed the direct involvement of foreigners in activism could be counterproductive.
“Cambodia is a country that is a bit more internationalized than most and people tend to look particularly to Western people, including the Cambodian government, by the way,” he said.
“In that sense, they would be seen as providing security, particularly when they are taking part …because there’s that sense of ‘the world is actually watching.’”
Mr. Virak said foreigners should restrict themselves to advisory roles and steer clear of demonstrations.
“I don’t think they should be deported, but I don’t support the approach. Sometimes there’s people coming into Cambodia with an agenda and sometimes they have more sway, which sometimes drowns out the local voices,” he said.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish environmental activist who was deported in February last year while leading a campaign against a planned hydropower dam in Koh Kong province, said the deportation of his compatriot was a worrying development.
“The expulsion of the Spanish researcher has come as a bit of a shock to many, since she had a valid visa and had not been found guilty by any court of having committed a crime,” he said in an email.
“This is indeed a worrying development that will surely put many other foreigners on edge, as they will fear being next,” he added.
“The government must not start seeing these foreigners who are involved in advocacy as dangerous enemies of the state, but instead as people who can play a very important role in the development of Cambodia as a whole.”