Six protesters, including two senior human rights officers, were arrested Monday morning during a “Black Monday” protest in Phnom Penh, the first in a campaign to free four fellow human rights workers and an election official who were jailed late last month on charges widely believed to be politically motivated.
Ee Sarom, executive director of housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, and Thav Kimsan, deputy director of advocacy for rights group Licadho, were handcuffed and pushed into a police van following an argument with Dangkao district officials near Prey Sar prison, where about 40 protesters had gathered.
Four other protesters were arrested in Dangkao and Daun Penh district, according to deputy Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng.
“We arrested three people at Prey Sar and arrested three other people in Daun Penh district. A total of six people were arrested,” Mr. Sreng said, declining to comment further.
Police set up checkpoints in the morning along the roads leading to Prey Sar, where four senior officers for local rights group Adhoc were jailed last week for allegedly conspiring to bribe a mistress of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha to deny the affair.
The case has also ensnared Ny Chakrya, a former Adhoc officer who is now a deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee, who was jailed in Phnom Penh’s PJ prison. A U.N. official was also charged in absentia over the case, while an opposition commune chief was imprisoned for allegedly delivering the money. Mr. Sokha and two other opposition lawmakers have been summoned to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for questioning.
A government spokesman warned on Sunday that the planned protest for the release of the activists would be viewed as an act of rebellion, and said the plan for protesters to wear black shirts had the makings of a “color revolution.”
The arrests of Mr. Sarom and Mr. Kimsan came amid an argument with deputy Dangkao governor Prach Seiha over the protest’s legality.
“You do not have permission,” Mr. Seiha told the rights officers. “We are just following the orders, if you had permission we would let you go.”
“Previously, we have done this and we have never affected public order,” Mr. Sarom responded.
“We cannot let you go because you will cause trouble. If the law does not allow you and you do it, then you are violating the law,” the deputy district governor said.
“Our mission is to rally for freedom of expression,” Mr. Sarom said, shortly before another official ordered security guards to arrest the men.
Dangkao district governor Nuth Puthdara and district police chief Choem Sitha declined to comment on the arrests.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho, said Mr. Sarom and Mr. Kimsan were being questioned at the Dangkao district police station.
“I think that this is a very serious ban on freedom,” Mr Sam Ath said. “We just held a peaceful protest to demand the release of the five people who were imprisoned.”
(Additional reporting by George Wright)