Petition Rally for Prisoners’ Release Ends Peacefully

A week after they began their campaign, activists and rights groups handed out the last of their petitions to embassies across Phnom Penh on Wednesday, hoping to solicit the help of foreign governments in securing the release of 23 men arrested earlier this month at protests.

The petition drive was broken up on its first day last week by Daun Penh district security guards, who grabbed 11 activists off the street and detained them for several hours.

Wednesday’s march also turned tense when riot police blocked the petitioners’ way on Street 51, in front of the offices of the World Health Organization, and threatened to disperse them by force if the marchers did not take to motorbikes and tuk-tuks within 15 minutes.

The 50-odd activists and rights workers complied and turned their march into a drive.

They finished before lunch in front of the Chinese Embassy on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard.

“We hope all the embassies that we have submitted petitions to will help find a solution for us and will negotiate with the government,” said Pech Polet of Strey Khmer, a women’s rights NGO.

With copies of their petition in hand, endorsed by nearly 200 mostly local nongovernment groups, the activists, rights workers and monks visited 19 embassies and two U.N. offices in all over four days of marching.

Some of the embassies included those of well-established democracies such as the U.S. and U.K., but some of the others visited Wednesday made an odd choice for a petition drive seeking the release of political prisoners. China and Vietnam have hundreds of political prisoners themselves, and hardly seem likely to put any pressure on Cambodia to free its own.

Rights groups even blame the Cambodian government of abusing its citizens in the interests of Chinese and Vietnamese firms doing business here. Even so, the petitioners remained hopeful that even they might use their considerable economic ties with Cambodia—none more so than China—to press Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government on their cause.

“Since some big embassies are doing business with our country…they can push the government to consider about this,” said Ros Sopheap, executive director of the NGO Gender and Development for Cambodia.

They also made a special appeal for help to Burma, which has taken over the rotating chairmanship of Asean for 2014.

Besides the Burmese, Chinese and Vietnamese embassies, the group visited the embassies of Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore on Wednedsay. They also visited the offices of the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking. While most sent out an official to accept the petition, the Vietnamese Embassy was closed and the Philippines sent out a driver.

After heeding the morning’s warning from police to stop marching, the group avoided any more interference from authorities. A few truckloads of riot police followed them to a few of their stops, but kept out of their way.

The petitioners said they would keep pressing their case until the 23 detainees are released, despite a standing ban on protests and demonstrations.

“We need the embassies and international NGOs to help release the 23 people,” said Tim Sakmony, an activist from the city’s Borei Keila community. “We do not care about our safety and we will never back down. We will keep doing everything possible until we get them released.”

The 23 detainees have all been charged with causing violence and destroying property and are awaiting trial. They were arrested during two days of garment workers’ demonstrations that ended on January 3 when military police opened fire into crowds of stone-throwing protesters, killing five and wounding more than 40.

San Sokong, a lawyer for six of the detainees, said Wednesday that the Appeal Court had scheduled a bail hearing for all 23 men on February 11. Appeal Court Judge Khun Leang Meng said a bail hearing on that day was possible but not yet definite.

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