Police Grill Labor Leader Over ‘Black Monday’ Shirts

Police questioned a labor leader on Wednesday over his alleged involvement in printing black T-shirts for use in next week’s planned “Black Monday” protest, while an official said the U.S. ambassador refuted claims that the embassy was behind the campaign in a meeting with the foreign minister.

Eight human rights officers and activists were arrested during the first Black Monday protest earlier this week, but have pledged to press ahead with the weekly rallies of black-clad protesters calling for the release of five colleagues who have been imprisoned over their alleged involvement in a sex scandal.

US Ambassador William Heidt talks with Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn during a meeting in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
US Ambassador William Heidt talks with Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn during a meeting in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Vorn Pao, president of an activist labor association made up mostly of tuk-tuk drivers, was grilled by police on Wednesday after Prime Minister Hun Sen ramped up his rhetoric on Tuesday against the campaign, warning anyone caught printing or paying for the black T-shirts to “be careful.”

Mr. Pao said he was called in for questioning at the Toek Thla commune police station in Sen Sok district around 9 a.m. over accusations that his group was printing black T-shirts to be worn by protesters—a claim he denied.

Police suspicions stemmed from a photo that was posted to Facebook of a pile of black shirts above a caption calling on protesters to collect them from Solidarity House, which serves as a shared office space for numerous rights organizations, including his group, Mr. Pao said.

“They asked me whether our Solidarity House is the one who printed the black T-shirts or not. I clarified that we did not print those T-shirts and we did not know who printed them,” he said, adding that he was released after 1 1/2 hours of questioning.

Heng Sam Orn, secretary-general of Mr. Pao’s organization—Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association—said police also searched the Solidarity House offices after the questioning but failed to find the T-shirts, emblazoned with the message “Mourning Human Rights in Cambodia,” that they were looking for.

“After questioning him, police also came to check our office…and we let them check but they found nothing,” he said, adding that officers said they planned to summon more members of the organization.

Mok Hong, Sen Sok district police chief, confirmed that Mr. Pao was questioned over his suspected links to the printing of the shirts, but declined to comment further.

In a meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador William Heidt refuted reports published online by local media over the weekend claiming that the U.S. Embassy was covertly organizing the Black Monday campaign, said Chum Sounry, spokesman for the ministry.

“The American ambassador denied absolutely that the American Embassy appealed to the campaigners to wear black clothes. It is not like how some media has published,” Mr. Sounry said.

“Even though America supports civil society, it understands clearly that this is not a problem that America should be involved in, meaning encouraging a campaign against the government,” he said.

Popular local news service Fresh News published an opinion article over the weekend with the headline “Mastermind of Black Color Revolution Shows Up in Cambodia,” accompanied by a diagram linking the U.S. government to various rights organizations and a photograph of Mr. Heidt meeting last week with prominent human rights advocates.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Mr. Heidt said only that he raised “the current political situation” in his meeting with Mr. Sokhonn.

During a speech in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Mr. Hun Sen announced he would ban any future protests in which participants are all dressed in the same color. He also warned that those involved in the production of black T-shirts intended for the protests could be targeted.

“Please, the people who gave money or are printing shirts must be careful since we have identified you clearly,” Mr. Hun Sen said, explaining that authorities would not allow freedom of expression to disrupt peace and stability.

The Black Monday campaign was launched following the jailing of four senior officers from rights group Adhoc and Ny Chakrya, a former officer at the organization who recently became the deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee. An opposition commune chief has also been imprisoned in the case.

The spate of arrests came amid an investigation by the Anti-Corruption Unit into claims that the group conspired to bribe an alleged mistress of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha to deny the affair. A U.N. official was also charged in absentia over the case.

Mr. Sokha and two other opposition lawmakers have been summoned to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning over the scandal, with Mr. Sokha failing to appear in court on Wednesday.

sokhean@cambodiadaily.com, sovuthy@cambodiadaily.com

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