Defying a new ban on public gatherings, more than 50 activists and monks gathered outside the local U.N. human rights office Monday morning to demand the immediate release of 23 men who were arrested earlier this month during violent clashes between police and garment workers.
The 23 men were arrested during two days of demonstrations for higher garment sector wages that ended in the fatal shooting of five protesters by military police outside a Phnom Penh factory on January 3.
The Interior Ministry ordered a freeze on public gatherings of 10 or more people the next day, and the 23 men have since been charged with inciting violence and damage to private property. They each face up to 15 years in jail.
Taking advantage of the latest visit from the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, who arrived Sunday, activists, monks and relatives of the 23 detained men met outside the U.N. office with banners and a petition asking the envoy to help secure the prisoners’ release.
“We already know the Cambodian government and courts have never done anything good for their people and our only hope is that outsiders can put pressure on the government,” said Prak Sovannary, wife of detained union leader Vorn Pao.
Rights group Licadho, which sent a medical team to meet the detainees in jail last week, said all 23 men appeared to have been beaten both before and after their arrests and that Mr. Pao’s condition was the most severe owing to a recent kidney operation. They are being held at the notorious Correctional Center 3 (CC3) prison in Kompong Cham province, near the Vietnamese border.
Mr. Subedi stepped outside to meet with the demonstrators briefly, took their petition and promised to help.
“I will monitor the situation as closely as possible and do what I can for you,” he said. “I will do my best to bring to the attention of the authorities your concerns.”
Mr. Subedi, who is here for a week to update himself on the current human rights situation in Cambodia, has a scheduled meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday.
Despite the ban on public gatherings, police made no attempt to break up the morning’s protest, perhaps wary of causing a violent scene directly under the U.N.’s nose.
On Monday, however, National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said the authorities chose to be “lenient” with the demonstrators.
“We did not break them up because the government and authorities were lenient with them and we did not get orders from the top to break them up,” he said.
Undeterred by the ban, some of the protesters vowed to organize more such demonstrators, and larger ones at that, until the detainees were released.
Mr. Pao’s lawyer filed a bail request with the Appeal Court on Monday after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court denied him bail on Friday on the grounds of “ensuring public order.”
Court officials handling the cases against Mr. Pao and the nine other men arrested on January 2 could not be reached Monday.
As for the charges against the 13 men arrested on January 3, municipal court investigating Judge Phou Povsrun said the cases were moving forward.
“We are in the process of questioning the plaintiffs and defendants and gathering evidence to inculpate or exculpate them and we will send them to trial,” he said.
Also Monday morning, a group of 65 unions and NGOs, including Oxfam and Transparency International, met in Phnom Penh and released a joint statement that accused the police of using excessive force, called the arrest of the 23 men by security guards and people in plain clothes illegal, and urged the government to release them.
Accusing police of sparking the violence that lead to the fatal shootings by using electric batons to break up a protest that had until then been peaceful, they called for an independent investigation into the incident. They also called for legal action against the perpetrators and redress for those injured and the families of those killed.
“If electric batons had not been used…I think the violence would not have happened,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, at the NGO event.
The NGOs showed a widely circulated video of the clashes compiled by Licadho showing police kicking and beating protesters who appeared to be putting up no resistance.
“This is not defense,” prominent human rights lawyer Sok Sam Oeun said, critical of the police behavior, especially of what he called the illegal use of military personnel in response to domestic unrest.
“It’s not proper to use the military to intervene in internal security. The army should stay neutral if they want to maintain democracy,” he said. “We have many laws, but some laws just seem like a code of conduct because there is not punishment [for breaking them] and no enforcement.”
Mr. Hun Sen has assigned the Interior Ministry to carry out a study of the clashes.