More than 20 opposition supporters were taken off Phnom Penh streets by police Monday and detained for questioning, authorities confirmed.
An opposition official and two rights workers condemned the government action, saying at least some arrests had violated constitutional rights to freedom of expression. They were also concerned about how those detained would be treated.
The mass arrests appeared to indicate a more forceful crackdown to the three-week-old protests, and renewed concerns among some rights workers that the government may be targeting specific individuals. A Funcinpec party official said many of those detained were student activists, but the government said most were moto-taxi drivers.
“We only want to get more information from them,” said Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak. “I assure you that we do not do any torture or barbarous acts.”
Khieu Sopheak said 13 protesters considered to be “ringleaders” were taken into custody Monday morning because of their “anarchic” behavior. By Monday evening, he said the number of arrests had increased to 22 and could rise “hour by hour.”
“It’s better to put out the fire when it is small-scale burning,” Khieu Sopheak said. “The purpose is to maintain social order. Of course, we need democracy…but the demonstration has gone far beyond the limit.” He mentioned stone-throwing and the cursing of Hun Sen, the second prime minister.
He said the government is exercising its right to hold protesters for as long as 48 hours without charges. He said interrogations were being done at the municipal police department, and those detained would be released this morning.
As part of the interrogation, some were to be given blood tests to determine if they were drunk or on drugs, Khieu Sopheak said.
Khieu Sopheak said Monday evening that police learned from questioning that two protesters detained were policemen and two others were soldiers, all of whom are banned from participating in the demonstrations. Two also were Westerners—a German and an American—who will be deported, he said.
An eyewitness said a Cambodian news cameraman also was detained Monday night.
Min Sokphaly, one of those arrested Monday evening, said he was a 21-year-old construction worker from Svay Rieng province who had joined the protests because he had been given food. “I have no money and I can’t find a job,” he said. He was carrying with him a slingshot and about 30 marbles.
Opposition protesters took back to Phnom Penh’s streets late Sunday afternoon, almost as soon as the 100 truckloads of CPP supporters left town. Many of the student protesters Monday were holding Cambodian, US and UN flags.
“They were doing nothing except holding flags,” a Cabinet official for Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, said of a group of students detained Monday morning.
“The CPP has the right to demonstrate, but the opposition does not,” he added, referring to the virtually unabated pro-CPP protests over the weekend.
“I think there are targets, yes,” one rights worker said Monday. But he said he didn’t know whether there are actual lists of names.
An investigator from the local human rights organization Adhoc said at least some of the arrests appeared to violate constitutional rights and added that he was concerned about how the detainees would be treated.
Khieu Sopheak said Monday’s action marked the first time the police have arrested protesters since the demonstrations began three weeks ago.
If that’s so, “then that makes us really worried about others’ safety,” said the rights worker, who said he has reports of detentions taking place before Monday.
Rights groups have collected anecdotal evidence of missing opposition protesters, but their status is hard to track.
Said Im Savoeun, an 18-year-old student activist: “Now we don’t have leaders of the Students for Democracy because some of them go away. They hide and are afraid the police will catch them.” He said he also believed that some had been arrested and some had died.
Four corpses, at least one of them a student, have been found since last week. The bodies showed signs of torture, and at least two are suspected to be linked to the protests. But no firm conclusions have been made.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith and Kay Johnson)