Land-rights NGO Equitable Cambodia on Wednesday condemned the overnight detention of two of its researchers, including a dual Japanese-American citizen, following their visit to families that have been evicted by a Thai sugar company.
Authorities say the researchers were detained for their own protection.
Sok Lida, a Cambodian research officer for Equitable Cambodia, and Meg Fukuzawa, a consultant for the NGO, were taken into custody by immigration police in Oddar Meanchey on Tuesday evening and released in Phnom Penh on Wednesday afternoon. Neither was charged.
Equitable Cambodia has been advocating for years on behalf of hundreds of families in Oddar Meanchey that were forced from their homes and their farms by three plantations owned by Thai sugar giant Mitr Phol, a main supplier of Coca-Cola.
The NGO helped the families lodge a complaint against Mitr Phol with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand in 2013. Last month, the commission formally sided with the families, saying the company had taken their land illegally.
Eang Vuthy, Equitable Cambodia’s executive director, said Mr. Lida and Ms. Fukuzawa had been on a routine visit to a resettlement site for the evicted families in Samraong City when they were initially approached by a local resident who asked them what they were doing there.
Mr. Vuthy said police arrived next, followed by a deputy provincial governor who asked the pair to come with him. When they refused, immigration police were called to the scene.
“The reason that they didn’t want to go [with the deputy governor] is because it had gotten dark…and they didn’t feel it was safe,” he said.
Mr. Vuthy said immigration police then drove Mr. Lida and Ms. Fukuzawa to the provincial police headquarters, questioned them and held them overnight.
“It appears it was something to do with immigration—they were told that,” Mr. Vuthy said. “But the specific reasons, no.”
In the morning, the researchers were transferred to the Interior Ministry’s general department of immigration in Phnom Penh and released that afternoon.
Ms. Fukuzawa was only freed after she signed a document agreeing not to file a complaint over her detention.
Long Sokun, deputy police chief in Oddar Meanchey, said authorities approached the researchers because they had been in a dangerous area.
“We asked [Ms. Fukuzawa] to leave the village for her own safety because it was a remote area, but she did not consent,” Mr. Sokun said. “Then we asked to see her documents and she had none.”
Uk Hai Sela, head of investigations at the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said police waylaid Ms. Fukuzawa out of concerns for her safety—not because she was a foreigner speaking to dispossessed farmers.
“She [went] there with one of her friends…so police followed her there and police asked her why she [went] there,” he said.
“She was without any documents, that’s why police invited her to the station in Oddar Meanchey. But we found out she has a passport. Actually, she has two passports,” he said.
Mr. Vuthy, however, said the detentions were clearly an attempt to intimidate his staff.
“They can’t detain the people without any reasons. Both of them [were] doing the study for the organization. They had the million letters and they tried to explain everything to the police, but they would not listen to them,” he said.
“This is really intimidation of civil society in Cambodia.”
In March, the Children’s Development Association, another local NGO, said about 30 local police followed auditors from Coca-Cola who had traveled to Oddar Meanchey to investigate the eviction claims against Mitr Phol.
According to the organization, the auditors were forced to call off a planned meeting with affected villagers, whom they worried would be intimidated by the police and unable to speak freely.
At the time, police said the visitors were followed “because we were worried about their safety.”