In the weeks that 17-year-old garment worker Yon Chea languished in prison, he spent hours staring out of the window at a concrete wall, certain that he would never see his home or his family again.
“I never thought I would get out. There was a window that looked out onto a wall, I would sit all day and stare at that window,” he said Sunday, as he sat on the floor of the tiny apartment on Veng Sreng Street in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district that he shares with his parents and two of his siblings.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday morning granted bail to Mr. Chea and one other detainee, 27-year-old Bou Sarith, both of whom were among the 23 union activists and protesters jailed following the deadly suppression of garment worker strikes on January 2 and 3. They were released on Saturday.
Many of the 21 who are still being held in prison went on hunger strike Sunday morning.
“Sixteen prisoners out of 21 have been hunger striking since this morning because they want to send a message to the Ministry of Justice to find justice for them,” Kea Sovanna, the director of Correctional Center 3 (CC3), where the remaining 21 prisoners are being held, said Sunday.
And for the two men released on bail, even life outside the prison walls is a struggle.
Mr. Chea is now deaf in his left ear and unable to use his left hand from the beating he received on the evening of January 2. He said he was there because he wanted to take photographs.
“I heard fighting outside, so I went down with my camera phone to see what was going on and take pictures…. When I was there, military police surrounded me. They did not speak, they just charged at me,” he said.
“They hit me all over until I was unconscious. When I woke up I was at the police station.”
Mr. Chea spent two days at the Phnom Penh Municipal Police headquarters, where he says he was forced to strip down to his underwear and sleep on a sheet of paper on the floor. He was subjected to hours of questioning and threatened by police officers.
“A police officer told me ‘I will put an iron pole in your mouth if you keep talking,’” he said as he stared down at his left hand, which is swollen and deformed from the ordeal.
Mr. Chea claims that after beating him unconscious, military police stole all of his belongings.
“Police robbed me of everything I had with me: my phone, wallet and my factory card,” he said.
After being charged with violence and damaging public property, Mr. Chea was taken to CC3, which rights groups say is notorious for poor conditions. Each day was a struggle to get by, he said.
“Every day when I woke up I wanted to run away,” he said.
Mr. Chea said that he and his fellow inmates were banned from speaking during the first few days of their incarceration, but police officers eventually relented. Most of the people he was locked up with were convicted rapists, thieves and drug dealers.
While the prison agreed to do a scan on Mr. Chea’s hand and provided him with medication to relieve the pain, they refused to perform vital surgery.
After spending about 18 days in CC3, Mr. Chea was moved to Kompong Cham Provincial Prison because he was a minor. “It was easier there, but I still had no freedom,” he said.
After his arrest, Mr. Chea was fired from his job at the Chea Sun Garment factory, which he had held for one year. But, he said, his injuries and fear of arrest make it hard for him to work anyway. “I’m still very frightened. I don’t leave the house anymore.”
The other detainee released on bail, 27-year-old Bou Sarith, agreed.
“I’m too afraid to ever protest,” he said Sunday as he sat, surrounded by his family, beneath their wooden stilt house close to Veng Sreng Street, his hands shaking as he spoke.
Like Mr. Chea, Mr. Sarith claims he was just watching the protest when he was arrested on January 3.
He was standing with friends and other spectators outside a house rented by garment workers when somebody next to him swore at the military police.
“After that they arrested me, they hit me, they beat me.
“One of them [the military police] said to the others, ‘If you keep hitting him he’ll die,’” he said.
Mr. Sarith said the police hit him all over his body and head until it was bleeding and swollen.
Since being released from prison, Mr. Sarith says he suffers from chest pains and is experiencing memory loss. “I’m starting to forget things. One day I think I will have big problems,” he said.
When asked what life was like in CC3, Mr. Sarith said, “It’s not like home.”
“[In prison] you eat, sleep, sit down, walk; eat, sleep, sit down, walk…that is all you do,” he said as he prepared to be blessed in a Buddhist ceremony in his house.
The outcry over the treatment of the 23 detained men has grown in recent weeks, with protests both at home and abroad calling for their immediate release.
Today, on the eve of a bail hearing for the remaining 21 prisoners, unions are set to march along Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay and to foreign embassies to protest their incarceration and the government’s perceived inaction to address calls for a higher minimum wage.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said about 300 people, including eight unions, will “hand out petitions consisting of seven demands, including releasing the 23 prisoners.”
“We are not worried about [another] crackdown…. We will march and rally peacefully because we follow Cambodia’s Constitution.”
Outside of Cambodia, unions in 22 countries will also present letters to Cambodian embassies around the world calling for the prisoners to be freed and workers’ rights to be respected.
Mr. Chea says that he hopes what happened to him in January will never be repeated again.
“It’s a violation of human rights —they beat, hit and didn’t respect the law,” he said.