After Arrests, NGOs Continue Petitioning to ‘Free the 23’

Following the arrest of 11 activists on Tuesday as they attempted to deliver a petition to the U.S. and French embassies seeking the release of 23 jailed protesters, NGO representatives quietly delivered similar petitions to the Japanese Embassy and European Union headquarters Wednesday.

The petitioners, representing 181 NGOs and civil society groups, are scheduled to march to the German, South Korean, Australian and Thai embassies this morning to call for pressure on the government to release the 23 protesters, who were imprisoned following clashes with police on January 2 and 3.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court this week denied bail for the 23 accused, citing the need to question them and maintain public order by keeping them incarcerated in a high-security prison located next to the border with Vietnam in Kompong Cham province.

The petition states that the unconditional release of the 23 prisoners “is now an urgent matter of international humanitarian concern and in accordance with Cambodian law and regulations.”

Thida Khus, the executive director of Silaka, a training NGO that is organizing today’s march, said that 40 to 50 petitioners planned to meet at 8:30 a.m. and walk together to the four embassies despite the CPP government’s ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people.

“We are not demonstrating. We will just be there to deliver our petitions to the embassies,” Ms. Khus said, adding that the group did not seek the approval of City Hall for the event.

“The municipality needs to respect the law themselves. They are robbing people of their rights that are guaranteed by the Constitution,” Ms. Khus said, referring to the indefinite suspension of the freedom of assembly, announced by City Hall and the Ministry of Interior on January 4, which experts say is illegal.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that authorities were not officially notified of today’s march, and would therefore prevent it from going forward.

“We will stop them since they do not ask for permission,” he said.

Police have selectively enforced the ban on public gatherings since it was announced. However, anti-eviction activists who said they plan to take part in tomorrow’s march have been arrested twice this month for unsanctioned delivery of petitions.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) released a statement Wednesday condemning the Phnom Penh court’s decision to deny bail to the 23 detainees, who have not yet gone on trial but are being held in Correctional Center 3 in rural Kompong Cham province.

“International law is clear that pre-trial detention should only be exercised in exceptional situations, and avoided if suitable alternatives are possible,” said Sam Zarifi, ICJ’s regional director for Asia and the Pacific. “The reasons presented by the [Phnom Penh] Court don’t justify holding these activists in prison right now.”

Mr. Zarifi added that without compelling evidence that the prisoners are a flight risk or might interfere with an ongoing investigation, “the continued pre-trial detention of each of the 23 individuals would amount to arbitrary detention under international human rights standards.”

Heng Bon, a lawyer representing nine of the imprisoned protesters, said that the court sent her letters on Monday and Tuesday denying bail requests for her clients, citing the need to question the accused further, as well as the prevention of “chaos” that may ensue should they be set free.

A request from the opposition CNRP to visit the 23 prisoners was also denied by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, according to a letter dated Tuesday and signed by investigating judge Chea Sok Heng.

Be Tea Leng, executive director of the prison department at the Ministry of Interior, said: “We only allow the lawyer and family of the accused [to visit them] because this is the court’s internal regulations.”

However, Som Sokong, a lawyer for six of the imprisoned men, including Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association, said that he has only been allowed extremely limited access to his clients.

“I have met only Mr. Pao because the prison chief said he is busy with meetings, but I think this is…a trick to prevent us from visiting people in prison,” Mr. Sokong said.

Even when he was able to speak to Mr. Pao, Mr. Sokong said that prison guards insisted on listening in to his conversation. “I think this is a violation of the lawyer’s right to keep the confidence of his client,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)

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