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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The "balloon gang" busted

The "balloon gang" busted

O NE-LEGGED balloon seller Sam Soun, 58, and his son Sophan, 28, thought August 5

was their lucky day - till they got arrested as being anti-government

agitators.

Soun and Sophan, along with two other balloon sellers, got a

big order to supply about 2,000 helium-filled balloons from two men: former

Funcinpec youth leader Sith Kosaing Sin, 32, and Son Yin, 38, secretary general

of the Khmer Krom Association.

They helped tie about 300 leaflets to the

balloons; one set of leaflets calling on "patriots" to support human rights, and

another asking visiting US Secretary of State Warren Christopher to help

Cambodia follow democracy.

Police chanced upon the "agitators" when a

crowd began gathering around them and, on orders from Municipal Police chief

General Net Savoeurn, arrested the four - and, later the next day, the

organizers Kosaing Sin and Yin also - on charges of "incitement."

The

detention of the six has been slammed by human rights watchdog Amnesty

International, which called it "illegal".

The United Nations

Secetary-General's Representative for Human Rights for Cambodia, Michael Kirby,

also expressed concern.

"I see nothing in what they said that is more

than an expression of political views...which is guaranteed and protected by the

Cambodian constitution," said Kirby.

However, the future for the six

looks bleak.

The investigating judge has confirmed to the Post that not

only will the men go to trial - but that they already appear

guilty.

"They attempted to distribute some 300 leaflets by tying them to

balloons, planning to incite the people to commit crimes or to hate the Royal

government..." said investigating judge Nub Sophon.

Sophon declined to

explain how the six detainees broke any Cambodian laws.

"I can't tell you

what and how the men broke any laws... I just tell you that they are charged

under article 60 of the Supreme National Council criminal law," he

said.

Article 60 relates to people inciting others to commit crimes, but

without any crimes actually being committed. The penalty is one to five years in

jail.

"I am just a balloon seller...I knew nothing about politics and I

did that because I need money to support my family," Sam Soun said. "I was

offered 100 riel for each balloon...and I was very happy because on that day I

earned 20,000 riel in the early morning."

Soun, a father of six, said he

was very concerned about the detention because nobody would be earning money for

his family.

The other men arrested - balloon sellers Lim Nem, 38, and Kay

Vichet, 30 - both told similar stories that they had no idea about politics, and

that they thought it just happened to be a lucky day that they got a profitable

order for their balloons.

"I was asked to do this by Son Yin... I read

one of the leaflets, but I found all it did was welcome the return of King

Sihanouk back from China," Vichet said.

Sith Kosaing Sin, a Customs

Department officer and a former secretary general of the Royalist Funcinpec

Youth wing, admitted writing the leaflets and organizing their

distribution.

When he heard the balloon sellers had been arrested, he

went to the police station - via the United Nations Center for Human Rights

(UNCHR) - and demanded that they be released and he be detained instead. The

police obliged by arresting him, but did not release the balloon

vendors.

"(The balloon sellers) were innocent of any political protest...

they had only been hired by me to inflate balloons and distribute (the

leaflets)," Kosaing Sin said.

He said he was not scared and claimed that

all he wanted was to encourage people speak of democracy. He said he believed he

did nothing against Cambodian laws or the constitution.

"Before I decided

to do this I read through the constitution and found nothing that said I would

be guilty," he said.

"While I sat down in the police office, one

policeman smiled at me and then locked me alone in the room without saying

anything," Kosaing Sin said.

He said a few minutes later policemen with

cameras and a TV camera arrived to take his photo. "Among those policemen, I

recognize one of them is a Funcinpec deputy chief of the municipal police,

General Peng Ly. He greeted me 'so, how is the politician'," Kosaing Sin

said.

He said he was questioned from 3pm until midnight.

Yin said

he was asked by Kosaing Sin, who he has known for years, to hire the four

balloon sellers to float the leaflets across the city.

"I got no money

from [Kosaing Sin] and I'm not angry with him now," Yin said.

Kosaing Sin

said he was upset at apparent disunity within Funcinpec and wanted the

government to give King Norodom Sihanouk power to achieve national

reconciliation.

The leaflet said if Khmers unified they would be strong.

It called on people to maintain solidarity, justice and unification, respect

each other's rights and laws, not to destroy the forests, traffic drugs or be

corrupt - or let too many aliens settle in the country.

"[The] Royal

Government must cease to plunder the rice field, lands and houses of the

population... If Khmers go on biting Khmers, beware of the Chinese who will buy

all the lands, then Khmers will start to have tear drops," the leaflet

continues.

The leaflet also called "patriots" of Funcinpec to remember

the years of sacrifice and to stand up against human rights violations in

Cambodia.

The leaflet appealed to US Secretary of State Warren

Christopher to prompt the government to abide by democracy, respect human

rights, obey the law and to promote independence of the courts.

The

second leaflet also called on Khmers to be unified and follow "... the Royal

political guidelines of national reconciliation, under the dignified leadership

of Samdech Euv (King Sihanouk), with a wonderful view to liberate the nation

from the dictatorial communism, corruption... treason to national ideals,

stepping forward to genuine democracy."

It said that at the present time

the situation was in "... extreme deterioriation...".

In conculsion, the

leaflet argued that "we... do not follow the incitement of the Khmer

Rouge".

Defending the six, Charto administration director Oum Samuel

said: "I have read the two leaflets over and over again, but I found nothing

which incites anyone to commit a crime of any kind... my clients should not be

guilty."

He said the leaflets are simply the peaceful expression of their

political views.

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