Six protesters and four balloon vendors were arrested in front of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison on Sunday morning as they prepared to release balloons into the air in a symbolic plea for rights activist Tep Vanny to be freed from prison.
The protesters remained in detention overnight.
About 50 activists from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak, Thmar Kol and Borei Keila communities gathered in front of the prison, but were outnumbered by about 70 police and security guards who attempted to quell their demonstration, according to Kong Chantha, 48, an activist from Boeng Kak.
The activists planned to “float balloons to demand her release and provide encouragement to Tep Vanny [that] she is not alone,” she said.
As the group began to move toward a nearby pagoda, however, some guards were waiting there to arrest them, she said.
“There were about 20 district security guards that came to arrest us when we went to take balloons inside the pagoda,” Ms. Chantha said. “I was lucky that I quickly ran from their arrest, while the other six people got lifted up into a truck.”
Phoung Sopheap, Meas Sreypao, Sok Raksmey, Kiev Sary and Cheav Sreynich from the Thmar Kol community, and Nget Khun of the Boeng Kak community were among those arrested in Sunday’s protest, according to rights group Licadho.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said the arrests were necessary due to the turmoil that protests had caused outside the prison.
“Authorities have detained them because they provoked anarchy” at Prey Sar, he said, declining to elaborate.
“People have the right to express freedom of expression, but don’t affect other people’s rights,” he added, referring questions to Dangkao district authorities.
Dangkao police chief Choem Sitha said the six activists were taken to the district police station, where they would be held for 48 hours for questioning. He declined to comment further.
In addition to the activists, four balloon vendors were also arrested, but were released at noon after being questioned by police, said Seng Ky, one of the vendors.
“I was selling balloons. I do not have a political leaning,” he said. “I think they violated my rights.”
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, said all of the arrests were unwarranted.
“They were just protesting by releasing balloons. They were not provoking any anarchy or affecting public order,” he said. “The human rights situation is getting worse and worse.”
Ms. Vanny is in pretrial detention over a charge of intentional violence from a 2013 protest in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion, and is also set to go on trial over charges of insulting police and obstructing public officials during a 2011 protest that turned violent.
The cases were reactivated after Ms. Vanny was found guilty of insulting officials during a “Black Monday” protest last month in which she and fellow activists cursed effigies of court officials for failing to find justice for the family of slain political analyst Kem Ley.