Police in Koh Kong province on Wednesday arrested 17 people—including four rights workers—near the provincial courthouse as protesters continued to call for the release of three jailed environmental activists, according to officials. The group was released shortly after 6 p.m.
Along with the rights workers, those arrested included 10 protesters, a journalist, a citizen journalist and an activist from Mother Nature, the NGO that has organized a campaign against what they say is illegal sand dredging in the province.
In Kongchit, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho, who was among those arrested, confirmed their release at 6:05 p.m.
“I think human rights officials are eyewitnesses, and I think police arrested us because they didn’t want us to witness their actions against protesters,” he said.
Dozens of protesters set up camp on a volleyball pitch near the courthouse in Khemara Phoumint City following the August 17 arrests of Mother Nature activists Sim Samnang, 29; Tri Sovichea, 26; and Sun Mala, 24, who were subsequently jailed on charges of threatening to destroy dredging barges.
Since then, protests and marches through the provincial capital have drawn the ire of local authorities, who have repeatedly threatened the group with action, including arrest, if they continued their activities.
On Monday, the activists’ request to be released on bail was denied.
Deputy city governor Pen Bunchhouy issued a letter to protesters on Tuesday ordering them to leave their position in front of the court by Wednesday, threatening “action” if they refused.
On Wednesday, police made good on the threat, arresting the 17 before closing down the protest site and dispersing the rest of the crowd.
“Police have arrested me and they have taken me to their vehicle,” Hour In, a local monitor for Licadho, said by telephone at about 9 a.m. before the line cut off.
Mr. In said that earlier in the morning, 50 people had tried to march from outside the court to the main market in Khemara Phoumint City when a group of about 60 people appeared, stopping the march. Police then erected barricades to separate the groups.
“I think the group was created by the authorities to demonstrate against the real protesters,” he said.
Neak Sopheap, a 46-year-old protester, said that more than 40 police officers forced protesters to leave their camp in front of the court. She said her 15-year-old daughter was among those arrested.
“Police pushed the people to get out of the place and some people were knocked down,” she said.
Deputy provincial police chief Kong Yan said the daylong detention of the 17 people did not mean they had been arrested.
“We did not arrest the people. We just brought them to our office for questioning following the order of the court,” he said.
Among those arrested were protesters, officials working for rights group Licadho and Adhoc, a journalist for the opposition-aligned Khmer Post Radio and a “citizen journalist” working for the Community Legal Education Center.
“The court asked us to bring these people for questioning because they joined protests for many days, and they used bad words to look down on our provincial leaders,” Mr. Yan said.
Mr. Bunchhouy, the deputy city governor, denied claims that the counter-protesters were deployed by authorities.
“We did not create the group to protest against the protesters as we are accused of,” he said.
In the past few days, he said, more than 100 market vendors had filed complaints with police, asking them to stop the marches because they were hurting business.
Despite the closure of the protest camp, Mother Nature plans to continue calling for the release of its activists, and resume protesting against the dredging taking place in fragile marine environments, said Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, the group’s co-founder who was deported from Cambodia in February.
“The breaking up of the protest will bring no change whatsoever to our plans,” Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said in an email.
“The detention by the police is further proof of their desperation and utter incompetence on how they have handled this whole issue,” he said. “Detaining human rights monitors and journalists will no doubt benefit us, as it will attract other NGOs and civil society groups into the campaign.”
(Additional reporting by Peter Ford)