About 300 military police on Friday cleared demonstrators outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court who were demanding the release of 10 protest leaders detained since a bloody clash with paratroopers on Thursday.
The protesters, who numbered at most 250 and included monks, had closed off Monireth Boulevard with speaker-mounted tuk-tuks at both the front of the court and at the road’s intersection with Sihanouk Boulevard.
As court officials inside began proceedings to charge the detained protesters, including striking garment factory workers, rights activists and union officials, those outside took turns to harangue the court over a loudspeaker.
About 150 military police soon emerged from the adjacent Olympic Stadium and formed a police line next to the tuk-tuk blockade, at times arguing with monks who approached them but otherwise remaining calm.
At 9 a.m., CNRP vice president Kem Sokha arrived and told the crowd that the 10 detained protesters were not criminals but victims of military brutality.
Five monks, striking garment workers, union leaders and journalists were beaten on Thursday as soldiers from the elite 911 paratrooper unit broke up a protest of workers striking for a higher minimum wage in Pur Senchey district.
“If you arrest the union leaders and garment workers, you must also arrest the police and military police who beat up the workers,” Mr. Sokha shouted to the crowd.
In the afternoon, the court charged the 10 detained protesters with intentional use of violence under aggravating circumstances and the intentional destruction of property, according to Choung Choungy, a lawyer for six of the 10.
Mr. Choungy said the charged protesters, who he confirmed included prominent union leader Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association, had been sent to Prey Sar prison for pre-trial detention.
“This is an injustice for all of them because they were beaten to the point of breaking their hands and necks,” Mr. Choungy said. “Those who are guilty are the ones who beat them…but they arrested and jailed everyone else instead.”
Prosecutors, clerks and investigating judges at the municipal court either declined to comment on the case or could not be reached when contacted Friday evening.
Am Sam Ath, a senior monitor with rights group Licadho, said the charges against the protesters were trumped up.
“We want to see a court that is independent. We don’t want these courts that are involved in politics,” he said. “There is no justice for Cambodians.”
The protesters could remain in pre-trial detention for 18 months and then face five years in prison each, according to a statement released Friday by Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center.
The statement also says that authorities had denied human rights workers access to those detained, many of who had sustained severe beatings at the hands of the 911 paratroopers.
“LICADHO doctors and lawyers were [on Thursday] denied access to visit them at the 911 military base where they were held. Some had been brutally beaten during their arrest and were in urgent need of medical care,” it says.
As those outside the court continued their protest, the military police forces, this time numbering about 300, emerged again from Olympic Stadium at about 2 p.m.
Audibly discharging their electric batons in the air and later rattling them against their shields, the military police moved down the street clearing the protestors, who retreated toward Sihanouk Boulevard and all available side streets screaming “injustice” at the police.
A group of about 30 monks and a few other protesters stood their ground, throwing brick fragments and rocks, before eventually also being pushed north along Sihanouk Boulevard by the far greater number of military police.
The forces turned on a group of onlookers who had begun shouting insults from a petrol station on the corner of Sihanouk Boulevard.
Military police stormed the station’s tarmac, beating the slower of the fleeing onlookers across the head with batons and pushing others along the street before retreating back to their positions.
Afterward, while the military police were resting in the shade, onlookers started yelling further insults from a safe distance, calling them “despicable yuon” and “dogs,” and taunting them to try to attack again, as traffic began to slowly resume. Military police ignored them.
With no one sustaining a serious injury, most left the scene, and the road was opened just before 4 p.m.
After the protest cleared, a military police officer who identified himself only as Nimol said that authorities had been patient with the protesters but had been forced to clear them after hours of a main road being closed.
“We didn’t want to crack down on them, but they blocked the road and caused a traffic jam,” he said.