A video shot at the Department of Forestry on Dec 5 clearly shows riot police—wearing helmets and carrying batons—marching shoulder-to-shoulder into a crowd of villagers who had been staging a sit-in protest in hopes of obtaining logging plans for their homelands.
Seconds later, terrified villagers run past the cameraman toward Norodom Boulevard as national and military police give chase.
The grainy images made that night shed light on a confrontation now at the heart of a dispute between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Global Witness, the government’s independent forestry monitor.
The government has accused the UK-based environmental watchdog of exaggerating reports of police behavior to accuse the government of using excessive force in dispersing a peaceful protest.
The government has dismissed the allegations of force and Hun Sen renewed his call on Monday for the expulsion of Global Witness, saying the government would find a replacement.
But calls have continued for an investigation of the Dec 5 police crackdown.
Seven people needed medical treatment after the confrontation because police hit, kicked and used electro-shock batons to disperse the crowd, according to a statement from Peter Leuprecht, the UN special representative of the Secretary-General for Human Rights in Cambodia.
The villagers had come to the Forestry Department to get answers after forestry officials declined their invitation to a workshop discussing logging in Cambodia.
“That’s the story,” said Marcus Hardtke of Global Witness. “People invite you to a workshop and you beat them up at a time when everyone is talking about consultation. You do not call the riot police if they just want to invite you to a stupid workshop.”
Far from answering questions, the video leaves one of the largest mysteries unanswered: how did Hem Sao, a 29-year-old CPP village chief among those protesting at the Forestry Department, end up dead the following morning?
The video shows Hem Sao’s body at a city hospital at 9 am on Dec 6. He wears pants and a white CPP T-shirt, but his body bears no obvious signs of trauma. He reportedly returned from the confrontation and told friends staying with him at a Phnom Penh guest house that he was in pain and wanted to go to sleep. It’s not clear exactly when he died.
A copy of the video was aired on national television but Global Witness has complained that it was heavily edited to show only the most innocuous scenes.
In the version that Hardtke said was unedited, an officer can be seen chasing an unidentified man in the melee; the camera swings left and viewers hear a loud thwack—a sound a witness said was the policeman’s baton hitting flesh.
The video, taken by a man who was standing across the street from the offices, does not show the worst of the alleged police brutality: a pair of police trucks parked in the street block the view.
The incident lasted less than a minute, but for several minutes afterward riot police can be seen on the video wandering up and down the street near the Department of Forestry office with batons in hand.
Viewed minute by minute, the video begins with calm scenes of people sitting in a driveway of the Norodom Boulevard offices of the Department of Forestry.
A woman sitting on the ground shouts out, “We want the logging plans,” referring to management plans that logging companies have been instructed to file with the department.
At 6:41 pm a police official comes and explains something to some of the villagers, talking seriously with them. It starts to rain at 6:47 pm, and the cameraman moves across the street to take shelter under a tarp. No longer able to see all of the villagers, the cameraman is less visible to the growing crowd of police.
Two trucks carrying helmeted national police officers and a third truck carrying six or seven military police pulls up at 6:56 pm.
At 7:01 pm the police march into the crowd and begin blowing whistles. At 7:02 frightened villagers sprint from the area running toward Norodom Boulevard. By 7:06 the scene is mostly calm, with police wandering up and down the street with batons in their hands.
The video was shot with a Sony digital camera with special night-shot technology.
The video includes interviews with the villagers less than an hour after their confrontation with police. Some of the villagers pull off their shirts for the camera to show where they were apparently hit or kicked; one man shows his swollen arm to the camera. “Now it is sprained,” he says.
A third man says he was kicked three times.
Activists have continued to call for an investigation.
“The crackdown event showed brutality, immorality, disrespect for the law and tyranny of authority,” read a statement from the Watchdog Council of Cambodia issued Wednesday. The council identified itself as a coalition of the Student Movement for Democracy, the Khmer Student Intellectual Democratic Front and the Cambodian Farmer Independent Association.
The council called on the government to apologize to Global Witness publicly and to compensate those who were injured and the family of the man who died.
“Then the government used pretexts to divert and accuse Global Witness of inciting the people to protest,” the statement read.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)