The mayor of Lowell, Massachusetts—which has the second-largest population of Cambodian-Americans in the U.S.—on Friday visited 10 anti-eviction activists inside Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, emerging to announce that he would lobby the government for their release.
Wrapping up a five-day visit to Phnom Penh, Rodney Elliott spent about an hour inside the maximum-security facility, where the female activists have been detained since their convictions over a pair of protests in November.
Nine of the women hail from the Boeng Kak neighborhood, which has seen some 3,000 families forcibly evicted to make way for a development project backed by a ruling party senator.
“Basic rights, basic human rights that we’re all afforded, certainly in the United States, need to be upheld,” Mr. Elliott said before entering the prison.
“It doesn’t seem that due process has been allowed for these women, these property owners, and we think it’s important that that be taken into consideration,” he added.
Inside the prison, prominent human rights campaigner Tep Vanny told Mr. Elliott that the homes of about 600 families still living in the Boeng Kak area are regularly inundated with water as a result of inadequate drainage.
“We all got arrested and placed into prison simply because we protested to demand that City Hall remove the water that flooded our houses,” Ms. Vanny said.
Speaking to reporters after exiting Prey Sar, Mr. Elliott said he decided to visit the activists after receiving numerous requests from residents of Lowell—home to about 30,000 Cambodian-Americans—that he check on their health and well-being.
The mayor also said his delegation would ask the government to reverse the court’s decision to convict and imprison the women.
“We will submit a request to the government to reconsider the decisions that have been made in the court—based upon our conversations, [the activists] have done nothing wrong except for asking to express themselves—so that’s what we will do,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, however, said the government would not consider any submission from Mr. Elliott.
“Concern is good, but it’s an internal issue in Cambodia,” Mr. Siphan said.
“I’m so sorry because he didn’t have the chance to understand the case and what the jurisdiction is here,” he said.
“We don’t want to make him upset, but he is going to find out…. He is going to verify that later when he is back in the U.S.”
Mr. Siphan added that freedom of speech was tolerated to a greater extent in Cambodia than in the U.S.
“It is land of the free to say anything in Cambodia for anyone,” he said.
“[Mr. Elliott] can express anything in Cambodia better than in the U.S., because foreign visitors [to the U.S.] cannot express anything because of the government. But in Cambodia, you can say anything.”
Ngor Kimcheang, one of two opposition CNRP lawmakers who accompanied Mr. Elliott into the prison, said he was not surprised by the government’s reaction, but hoped the mayor would hold some sway nonetheless.
“We hope the word from the mayor and [the fact] that he is from the United States, the godfather of democracy and human rights” will have an impact, he said. “So hopefully they will listen.”