Local authorities detained eight residents living near Phnom Penh International Airport yesterday, holding them for about 12 hours after accusing them of threatening security by posting pictures of U.S. President Barack Obama on the roofs of their homes and spray painting SOS below the photographs.
The residents had adorned their roofs with messages to the U.S. president in a bid to prevent their eviction from Thmar Kaul village, where more than 180 families had been told to vacate their properties to make way for a security “buffer zone” around the airport ahead of next week’s Asean and East Asia summits.
Police said the six women and two men were arrested for causing insecurity just days before the summits, which will be attended by Mr. Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, among others.
“They caused insecurity…. This is not serious, but we need to provide safety for the summits,” Choam Chao commune chief Sot Sath said.
At Thmar Kaul yesterday morning, dozens of municipal police officers and soldiers armed with AK-47 assault rifles guarded the roadway into the village. Municipal police officers were seen on the roofs of houses spray painting over the SOS messages after having removed the pictures of Mr. Obama.
“My wife was just washing dishes when 40 policemen came to my house, climbed up to the roof and then took President Obama’s photo and spray painted over the SOS. They then came down and took my wife. The police said she committed terrorism, and they took her,” said Kong Phalla, 47, the husband of detainee Khiev Sary.
“We didn’t do anything wrong.”
Soth Sovanrath, assistant to the commune chief Mr. Sath, said the residents were arrested for arguing with police officers.
“We came to check people’s homes and instruct them to remove the posters. We arrested at least five people because when the authorities came to paint over the SOS, those people argued with them and prevented police from painting over the messages,” he said.
Phuong Sopheap, 38, one of the eight arrested residents, said after her release at about 7:30 p.m. that police agreed to set them free only if they signed a contract saying they would not protest during the East Asia and Asean summits, which run concurrently from Sunday to Tuesday.
Ms. Sopheap said the eight signed the agreement.
“I think that authorities arrested us because they want [to] weaken our spirits and stop us protesting about our land. But I’m not scared. When the summits finish, we’ll still protest,” Ms. Sopheap said.
Vong Sereivuth, Pur Senchey deputy district police chief, declined to comment on the arrest of the eight or their release.
Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Center, a legal aid group, was among a group of NGOs and media waiting outside the police station yesterday afternoon for the eight to be released.
“What harm to security has this caused?” Mr. Tola asked.
“You can’t even see it from a plane. The purpose is just to intimidate the community. It’s a shame for Cambodia…because this should be a time for people to express their freedom,” he said.
Local human rights group Adhoc also condemned the arrests.
“The arrests and detention of these community activists is yet another example of the Cambodian authorities’ disregard for human rights. The Cambodian authorities have expressed a desire to show the ‘good’ face of Cambodia to the world, however, their intolerance of dissent and willingness to use the police to stifle freedom of expression instead demonstrates little more than the shrinking democratic space in the country,” the group said in a statement.
The government has said the families constructed their homes illegally and they will be evicted without compensation. The families counter that claim, saying their ownership of the land and construction of their homes was recognized by local government officials, and they will not move without fair compensation.
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