More than 50 people, including human rights workers, NGO officials and a union leader, gathered outside Prey Sar prison on Saturday morning to call for the release of five men who have been charged with defamation and detained there in recent months, participants said.
The group released 100 caged birds before prison guards told them to leave the vicinity, participants said.
“To release birds is a symbol that all human beings should be free,” said Ly Korm, president of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation, who attended.
Guards did not let participants meet with Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha, CCHR Deputy Director Pa Nguon Teang, Community Legal Education Center Director Yeng Virak, Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association President Rong Chhun or Mam Sonando, owner of Beehive 105 FM Radio station. All five are being held there in pre-trial detention.
Ly Korm said officials from 15 NGOs, including local rights groups Licadho and Adhoc as well as the International Republican Institute, attended.
Kuy Bunsorn, director of the Prison Department at the Ministry of Interior, called the release of the birds “unacceptable.”
“This is a little bit extreme,” he said, adding that the government is obliged to protect citizens from alleged criminals.
Kuy Bunsorn said the group was not allowed to visit the detainees because they did not have permission from court officials.
The CCHR is soliciting villagers throughout the country to thumbprint petitions calling on the government to release the men, CCHR spokesman Ou Virak said. He said petitions will be delivered to King Norodom Sihamoni on Thursday.
“We are going to bring more [petitions] weekly to the King to show him how people feel about the arrests,” Ou Virak said. “We urge Cambodian people to participate in order to demand the release of the activists.”
CCHR staff have already visited Kandal and Takeo provinces, and collected about 12,000 thumbprints, he said. At one point, two CCHR staff members were detained by Takeo local authorities and questioned for several hours, Ou Virak claimed, though he did not know in which district this occurred. Authorities confiscated several petitions, then released the CCHR staff members, he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he had not heard about the reported incident.
The CCHR can collect thumbprints from villagers, “as long as those activities do not negatively affect the social situation,” he said. But, he added, “If those people do anything wrong, [local authorities] have the right to detain them.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists condemned on Friday the arrest of Pa Nguon Teang, who is also the producer of the CCHR’s Voice of Democracy radio program.
“We are deeply disturbed by this arrest, which reflects a pattern of deteriorating press freedom in Cambodia,” committee Executive Director Ann Cooper said in a statement. “We call for the immediate release of Pa Nguon Teang and other Cambodian journalists jailed on similar charges.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith could not be contacted, though he has previously defended the government’s lawsuit against Kem Sokha and Yeng Virak, saying the comments written on the banner, which led to their detention as well as that of Pa Nguon Teang, were unacceptable.