Police in Phnom Penh were involved in a violent clash with Boeng Kak lake residents that injured one villager yesterday as the protesters tried to present a petition to visiting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, rights groups said.
At about 10:15 am, a joint force of municipal intervention police and Chamkar Mon district police “launched a violent assault” to break up a gathering of about 50 villagers in front of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, according to a statement released yesterday by the human rights group Licadho.
Mr Ban was visiting the hospital at the time of the incident.
Soung Sophorn, 23, a law school graduate who led the demonstration, claimed police struck him repeatedly as they broke up the peaceful protest.
“I was beaten six or seven times on the head with a walkie-talkie, and the blood wet my shirt,” he said.
Mr Sophorn, who claims he was briefly detained after the incident, said authorities took him to Daun Penh district health center to treat his head wounds. He said he was only released after signing a document promising not to lead any more protests.
“I did the promise with them, but I want to confirm that I will still defend my people until I die,” he said.
Boeng Kak residents have been engaged in an ongoing struggle to preserve their homes after the government approved a development in the area expected to displace about 4,000 families. According to the Licadho statement, Mr Sophorn was convicted of defamation in June last year for protesting the eviction.
Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Kang Kyung-wha, who is based in Geneva but was part of the delegation visiting with Mr Ban, criticized the police response yesterday.
“I am aware of the incident. I have expressed concern in person to the Ministry of Interior about this incident and the excessive use of force used against the petitioners and Mr Soung Sophorn specifically,” she wrote in an e-mail yesterday.
“The office here has been in communication with the police this morning, who released Mr Soung this afternoon as promised. I have also received the petition of the Boeng Kak lake community on behalf of the secretary-general,” she added.
Kong Chantha, a resident in the district’s village 24, said police used electric batons to break up the protest.
“Their actions were very brutal. Even though [some protesters] were women, they did not forgive,” she said, adding that she suffered bruising after being punched in the head by one police officer.
Interviewed outside the hospital yesterday, Deputy Daun Penh district governor Sok Penhvuth said Mr Sophorn had not been beaten or arrested.
“He probably got injured when police sent him into the car and he hit the door to get injured. We just brought him for treatment, and right now he can go return home,” he said.
Chamkar Mon district Police Chief Ouch Sokhon claimed police did not use violence against the protesters.
“Don’t believe them. No one fought them. [Police] just pushed them away because it affected public order,” he said. “No country would allow [protesters] to go in to an event when it has started.”
Rights groups were also quick to condemn police actions.
“While the Cambodian government entertains an empty dialogue on human rights with the UN secretary-general, its armed forces are cracking down on freedom of expression. This incident has further exposed the cracking facade of democracy in Cambodia,” Pung Chhiv Kek, Licadho’s president, said in the group’s statement.
Sia Phearum, secretary-general of the Housing Rights Task Force, said Mr Ban’s visit should have been an opportunity for the lake residents to air their grievances.
“The UN secretary-general coming here is a chance to ask…leaders to help [villagers] because they are living under the threat of forced eviction,” he said.
“He has to pay more and more attention to this case,” he added.