Union Leader Released; ‘Free the 23’ Protests To Continue

Phnom Penh police released union leader Sok Chhun Oeung from custody Monday, a day after dragging him off the street at a peaceful protest he had organized along Phnom Penh’s riverside against the detention of 23 men still in jail for participating in demonstrations over garment factory wages earlier this month.

Remaining defiant on his release, Mr. Chhun Oeung joined human rights groups in denouncing his arrest as illegal and said his union for motorcycle taxi and tuk-tuk drivers, known as the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), would organize an even bigger rally soon in spite of a standing government ban on public gatherings.

“My arrest by police was not legal and we cannot accept it because I am not guilty,” he said.

Riot police and district security guards nabbed Mr. Chhun Oeung off the busy riverside promenade minutes after his small protest for the release of IDEA President Vorn Pao and 22 others had ended. Later that evening, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said Mr. Chhun Oeung was guilty of holding an event without government permission.

Dozens of security guards and riot police had been called in to stop the handful of peaceful protesters, repeatedly shoving them along the riverfront promenade with batons in hand.

Mr. Chhun Oeung said he had been questioned about the rally during his detention and was forced to sign a document promising not to join or incite any illegal protests in exchange for his freedom.

Though adamant his rally was not illegal, Mr. Chhun Oeung signed the document anyway.

A day after the military police shot dead five garment workers and injured 40 more protesting for higher wages on January 3, the Interior Ministry imposed an indefinite ban on public gatherings across the city. Legal experts say the ban is illegal, however, because it suspends a fundamental freedom enshrined in the country’s Constitution.

Undeterred by the ban, Mr. Chhun Oeung and his group’s secretary-general, Heng Sam Ol, said Monday that they were planning to host a thousands-strong rally for the release of the 23 detainees at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Sunday.

Mr. Sam Ol said IDEA had submitted a request for Sunday’s rally to City Hall on Monday but would go through with the event with or without the city’s permission.

“If they don’t agree it’s not our fault, so we will still protest,” he said.

Mr. Dimanche said the city had not yet made a decision on the request, and warned the group against holding any more public events without permission.

“We take action on all protests if they don’t have permission,” he said.

Among the 23 detainees, 17-year-old Yurn Chea was transferred from Kompong Cham province’s Correctional Center 3 prison—where the 22 others remain—to the provincial prison on Saturday to be with other minors. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has charged all the detainees with intentionally causing violence and damage to property.

Authorities have not satisfactorily explained why all 23 detainees were sent to a maximum-security prison in a remote area.

Rights groups have condemned both Mr. Chhun Oeung’s arrest and the case against the 23 and called for their release.

“The arrest and detention of Mr. Chhun Oeung is yet further proof that this government has no respect for the law,” rights group Adhoc said in a statement Monday after the union leader’s release.

“Instead of wasting resources in order to choke the right to free assembly and arrest peaceful protesters, the government would do better to investigate the killing of five people by security forces on 3 January 201[4]. In the meantime, the government must now release Mr. Vorn Pao together with the 22 other prisoners arrested and detained in relation to protests earlier this month.”

Several nongovernment groups are planning to start a three-day march around Phnom Penh today to deliver a petition to the city’s foreign embassies soliciting their help in securing the detainees’ release and pressuring the government into conducting an honest investigation into the January 3 shootings of the five garment factory workers.

While the government has released no information about its alleged “study” into the lethal violence on January 3, Horm Chhun Rith, a lawyer for Mr. Pao and 19 of the other detainees, said he has been invited by the court to attend the questioning of four witnesses in the case against his clients on January 28.

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