Police Forcibly Repatriate 101 Montangnards

Police entered a refugee facility in Phnom Penh on Wednesday, hitting some Montagnards who did not want to leave, then physically forcing them into buses before escorting more than 100 back to Vietnam, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and relief workers said.

One hundred and one Montagnards who have not been granted refugee status were dragged or escorted by police out of the shelter, which is run by the government and the UNHCR, said Inna Gladkova, associate protection officer with the agency.

The forced repatriation prompted at least 50 Montagnards to leave another UNHCR facility in protest before they were escorted back by police, the Interior Ministry said.

During the removal from the Site One facility, “the Montagnards resisted passionately, many were crying and screaming as they were carried out,” Gladkova said. “Some tried to jump over the compound wall but weren’t successful.”

The UNHCR saw someone hitting Montagnards during the removal, Gladkova said.

“We intervened,” she said, adding that UNHCR officials physically placed themselves between police and the hill tribesmen.

“In several instances there were electric batons used to threaten Montagnards to leave the site,” though the UNHCR did not directly observe anyone receiving shocks, Gladkova said.

The UNHCR recommended police not use excessive force, she said, adding that police tried to conduct the operation as smoothly as possible.

“It was a very sad process,” she said, but added: “The outcome could have been a lot worse.”

At about 6 am, dozens of police officers sealed off the road to Site One, refusing to let reporters closer than about 300 meters from the building. Some police officials were carrying AK-47s.

Before police entered, one Montagnard inside said by telephone that he did not want to go to Vietnam, adding that there were many, many children’ inside the facility.

“We don’t want to go to Vietnam but the Cambodian government doesn’t let us stay here,” he said. “Many Montagnards cry, they cry so much to go back. If we go back to Vietnam we’ll die.’

After 6:20 am, he could no longer be contacted.

One person inside the facility said police hit some Montagnards with electric batons after they sat down and refused to move.

“I saw electric lights flashing and I heard people groan,” the person said, asking not to be identified. “Even ordinary police thought it was over the top…. This is a disgrace.”

A relief worker outside also said that police appeared to use electric batons.

“We heard zap-zap-zap noises and a tremendous wailing” from inside the facility, the relief worker said.

Following the removal, about 50 or 60 Montagnards at the Site Two refugee facility in Phnom Penh spilled onto the street and started walking toward the first site, shouting, “We don’t want to go to Vietnam,” said Chhay Sinarith, director of the Interior Ministry’s information department.

“They attempted to go to help their friends in Site One, demanding not to send them back to Vietnam. They did not attempt to run away, just hold a peaceful demonstration,” he said.

About 100 police officials escorted them back to Site Two shortly after 7 am, said Chantha Lach, a Reuters cameraman who witnessed the incident.

After their removal from Site One, the 101 Montagnards were driven to the Bavet border crossing in Svay Rieng province in two buses, accompanied by three truckloads of police, some of whom were carrying gas masks, tear gas and electric batons. The two buses appeared to drive directly into Vietnam.

Of the 101 Montagnards, seven identified themselves to Vietnamese authorities as Cambodians and have been allowed to return to Cambodia, Chhay Sinarith said.

The US Embassy voiced concern about the repatriation Wednesday.

We have raised US objections about this repatriation with senior levels of the Cambodian government, an embassy spokesman said. We’ve also raised objections with senior Vietnamese officials and urged Vietnam to delay the repatriation in order to give the US more time to consider other options for these individuals.

We call on the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam to refrain from forcibly returning the screened out Montagnards, he added.

The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a collection of rights NGOs, released a statement Wednesday questioning UNHCR’s decision not to grant refugee status to members of the group.

The committee urged the UNHCR to seek complete and accurate information about the group, to ensure its members are not persecuted in Vietnam.

Vietnam has said returning Montagnards are not persecuted.

Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith and Ly Quang Bich, political counselor at the Vietnamese Embassy, could not be reached for comment.

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