Freedom Park Open as City ‘Returns to Normal’

The razor-wire was removed, riot police departed and Freedom Park was opened to the public for the first time in seven months Wednesday morning as City Hall declared that Phnom Penh had “returned to normal” following the swearing-in Tuesday of the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers.

“Because security, safety and public order have returned to normal, City Hall has decided to allow Freedom Park to be open again,” said a statement released by City Hall ahead of the reopening.

Municipal police on Wednesday remove razor-wire barricades from the fringe of Phnom Penh's Freedom Park, which had been locked down since January after being used for months as a rallying point for mass opposition demonstrations. Authorities said the city's security situation was back to normal after 55 opposition lawmakers were sworn into office on Tuesday following a 10-month boycott of parliament. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Municipal police on Wednesday remove razor-wire barricades from the fringe of Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, which had been locked down since January after being used for months as a rallying point for mass opposition demonstrations. Authorities said the city’s security situation was back to normal after 55 opposition lawmakers were sworn into office on Tuesday following a 10-month boycott of parliament. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Legal experts concluded earlier this year that the shuttering of Phnom Penh’s only designated demonstration zone—coinciding with a blanket ban on public protests—was a breach of the constitutional rights to free speech and assembly.

However, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said Wednesday that citizens were never deprived of those rights.

“We shut down Freedom Park temporarily,” Mr. Dimanche told reporters as police removed the razor-wire barricades.

“It did not mean the freedom of expression had been shut,” he said. “This freedom of expression just had to be done at other private locations.”

As the chief rallying point for mass opposition demonstrations and labor protests following the July 2013 election, Freedom Park was effectively shut down on January 4 when district security guards and plainclothes men wielding axes and crude clubs violently cleared the park of peaceful protesters.

Soon after, City Hall and the Ministry of Interior announced the ban on public gatherings. In April, after repeated attempts by CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua to enter the plaza, a permanent police presence was deployed to back up the razor-wire barricades surrounding the park.

A protest to “Free the Freedom Park” last month set in motion a series of events leading to Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP President Sam Rainsy striking a deal to end the opposition’s 10-month boycott of the National Assembly.

On July 15, a demonstration led by Ms. Sochua turned violent when opposition supporters fought back against notoriously violent district security guards armed with crude clubs, savagely beating and hospitalizing a number of them.

This led to the arrest and detention of seven opposition lawmakers and a party activist on charges of leading an insurrection and incitement to commit a felony.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has declined to provide details of the charges, or how they were established. Days after the arrests, CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun said at a press conference that the CNRP had come to Freedom Park on that day with a premeditated plan to beat security guards with crude clubs and begin the insurrection.

However, video and photo evidence clearly shows a municipal truck delivering the weapons and security guards wielding them.

Four days after the detention of the CNRP lawmakers, Mr. Rainsy returned from a remote island holiday and said that the two parties had to meet and “find a solution as soon as possible.”

Three days later, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Hun Sen struck a deal for the opposition to enter parliament. The eight CNRP officials were released from prison hours later.

Interior Ministry secretary of state Prum Sokha said last month that once the opposition lawmakers were sworn in, the National Assembly would “consider their immunity and ask the court to drop the case.”

But on Saturday, just three days before the opposition lawmakers took their oaths of office, three CNRP Youth leaders were arrested over the July 15 brawl on similar charges to the lawmakers.

Contacted Wednesday, Mr. Rainsy—who toured Freedom Park with Ms. Sochua around midday—said the three incarcerated party activists were “on the way to being released—it is a matter of formalities.”

The opposition leader said that the July 22 meeting with his longtime political adversary had left him confident that the courts could be persuaded to drop the charges against the three—as well as the eight previously imprisoned CNRP officials.

“That is the spirit of the agreement—to end the political tension in a comprehensive manner,” he said.

“No other court proceedings will be enacted.”

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