Relatives Call On Government to Release 23 Detainees

Relatives and human rights activists on Sunday called on the government to release 23 men beaten and arrested during clashes between police and garment workers just more than a week ago, and said they would defy a ban on public gatherings if they were not.

The 23 protesters, union leaders and garment workers were apprehended during two days of violent demonstrations—for a doubling of the monthly minimum wage for garment workers to $160—that turned deadly on January 3 when military police shot and killed five people and wounded dozens more. The 23 have since been charged with intentionally causing violence and damage to property.

At a press conference at the Phnom Penh home of one of the detainees, anti-eviction activist Chan Puthisak, about 40 relatives and activists condemned the men’s arrest and demanded their immediate release.

“The government crackdown on my husband is completely unacceptable because he did not commit any violence,” said Prak Sovannary, the wife of detained union leader Vorn Pao.

“He went there to protect the rights of the workers but the authorities handcuffed him and hit him. They gave him nine stitches and his body was beaten, kicked and punched,” she said.

Denied adequate medicine and proper medical care, Mr. Pao is also suffering from complications of kidney surgery he had only five months ago, his wife added.

“I appeal to the government to release him urgently because his health condition is getting worse and he needs to see a doctor,” she said. “I call on international and local NGOs and all embassies to put pressure on the government to release all the people the authorities arrested during the demonstration.”

According to rights groups Adhoc and Licadho, which visited the detainees at Correctional Center 3 (CC3) in Kompong

Cham province last week, all 23 men had been beaten both before and after their arrests. Licadho, which sent a medical team, said Mr. Pao’s condition was the most serious, owing to his recent operation.

Human rights workers and lawyers representing some of the detainees were denied access when they tried to visit on Thursday, however. Since then, “most” but not all of the imprisoned men have been able to meet with their lawyers, according to Chan Soveth, senior investigator at Adhoc.

At Sunday’s press conference, prominent anti-eviction activist Tep Vanny said supporters would demonstrate against the arrest of the 23 men if they were not released soon, in defiance of a ban on public gatherings the Interior Ministry imposed on January 4.

“We do not worry about this order because when we protest they always beat, kick, arrest and imprison us,” said Ms. Vanny. “It’s just a show to intimidate us.”

Long Vuthy, an advocacy officer for Mr. Pao’s union, the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, said they would start today with a rally outside the local headquarters of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights demanding the 23 detainees’ release.

Mr. Vuthy said he hoped to gather some 500 supporters for the rally and submit a petition to the U.N. human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, who was scheduled to arrive for his latest fact-finding mission Sunday afternoon.

Wan-Hea Lee, the office’s country director, said the U.N. would accept the petition, but she declined to comment on whether Mr. Subedi would be there to meet with the demonstrators.

Such a rally would be in clear violation of the government’s standing ban on public gatherings.

Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the National Military Police, said authorities would not allow it.

“First we will tell them to break up, but if they do not break up we will take action to break them up,” he said. “The authorities have the right to implement law and order.”

Making common cause with the activists and relatives of the 23 detainees, some 100 NGO representatives are scheduled to meet in Phnom Penh this morning to demand the detainees’ release and call on the government to end what they call the state’s excessive use of force.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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