Eleven political activists were pulled off the street by helmeted security guards Tuesday morning during a peaceful march to foreign embassies to deliver petitions calling for an end to government violence and the release of 23 imprisoned activists and strikers.
The 11 protesters—10 land rights activists and Rong Chhun, a prominent opposition-aligned labor activist—were arrested for disturbing public order, City Hall said. They were held at Phnom Penh municipal police headquarters for about five hours before being released shortly before 2 p.m.
“We arrested them because the rally and the expression of their views impact public order and public security,” City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said.
Following the government’s violent and lethal suppression of demonstrations from January 2 to 4, the Ministry of Interior
announced an indefinite ban on the constitutional freedom to assemble peacefully, which law experts say is illegal.
At about 8:15 a.m. Tuesday, a group of about two dozen activists and civil society representatives had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the U.S. Embassy.
With dozens of Daun Penh district security guards, wearing full-faced black motorcycle helmets and wielding batons, gathered in the gardens opposite the U.S. Embassy, an embassy security official insisted that the petitioners move to the other side of the street.
After the crowd obliged and crossed the street, a group of about 10 security guards huddled together and then swiftly dived into the group of protesters, grabbed Boeng Kak activist Tep Vanny, and violently pushed her into an unmarked white van.
The rest of the activists raced back across the street and begged embassy officials to protect them.
“If you push me to the other side, you push me to death,” said one Boeng Kak activist, sobbing in front of the U.S. Embassy gate.
Less than 10 minutes after Ms. Vanny was taken away, the security guards once again swooped into the crowd of petitioners and journalists standing on the sidewalk opposite the embassy and seized Mr. Chhun, who was choked as the helmeted men tried to force him into another waiting white van.
Long Kimheang, a communications officer with the Housing Rights Task Force, which organized the peaceful rally, attempted to prevent the security guards from hauling away Mr. Chhun and was tossed into the van too.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh said that the embassy’s security official was following procedure when he demanded that the protesters cross the street to stand nearby the district security guards, who have beaten and arrested numerous protesters over the past three weeks.
“In keeping with security procedures, the group of activists was asked to conduct its demonstration in the public space across the street from the embassy,” Mr. McIntosh said.
Shortly before 9 a.m., with security guards blowing whistles and instructing the remaining activists, journalists and human rights observers to move, U.S. Embassy officials quickly negotiated for the two-dozen female activists to walk away from the embassy without further harassment from the helmeted guards.
The group of women, surrounded by dozens of journalists and trailed by three trucks filled with district security guards, then walked to Monivong Boulevard and began marching north toward the French Embassy. Near Calmette Hospital, the trucks of security guards overtook the marchers and the security guards jumped off and formed a roadblock.
The female activists spent about five minutes futilely trying to push through the line of guards, creating a crush that briefly blocked traffic along Monivong Boulevard, before a municipal police paddy wagon pulled up next to the assembled crowd.
The security guards then grabbed seven of the activists and pulled them, kicking and screaming, into the paddy wagon. Among the activists were Yorm Bopha, Song Sreyleap, Phan Chunreth, Bov Sorphea, Em Sreytouch, Nguon Kimleng and Choung Sopheap.
The remaining dozen activists then broke free and rushed down Monivong Boulevard to the French Embassy, where they were allowed to collect themselves in front of the embassy gate as a French police official spoke to representatives of the group and accepted their petition.
The activists then marched to the U.K. Embassy and the office of Unicef, where representatives also accepted their petition, and then got on motorbikes and tuk-tuks and drove to the Phnom Penh police headquarters, where their 11 detained colleagues were being held.
Phnom Penh police chief Chuon Sovann arrived at about noon, and following a meeting with Daun Penh district officials and a lawyer from local human rights group Licadho, the activists were released at about 1:45 p.m.
Standing side by side with their hands clasped in the air, the 11 activists walked through the police headquarters’ parking lot to cheers from the crowd of people waiting outside, which included a number of monks and youth who joined in the afternoon.
Following their release, Ms. Vanny and Mr. Chhun said they would not be cowed by their arrest.
“To free the 23, we will join [protests] again,” said Ms. Vanny. “We have no fear of arrest or being put in to jail. We’re used to being scared. We want justice.”
Mr. Chhun said he and seven other non-government aligned union leaders planned to hold a demonstration in Freedom Park on January 26 to call for the release of the 23 arrested activists and workers, many of whom were beaten during the government’s violent suppression of labor protests on January 2 and 3.
“I am not concerned,” Mr. Chhun said. “On the 26, we will gather 10,000 people to ask for the release of Vorn Pov [president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association] and 22 others.”
The civil society groups who organized Tuesday’s march issued a statement saying that they would delay another march to foreign embassies planned for today, but would continue delivering petitions on Thursday.
Be Tea Leng, executive director of Ministry of Interior’s prisons department, said that he was waiting on a court order to release the 23 prisoners who remain incarcerated in the high-security Correctional Center 3 prison in Kompong Cham province.
“It depends on the court. When it issues the order, we’re waiting to release [the 23 prisoners],” he said.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)
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