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Controversial ‘Freedom Park’ ready to open

PHNOM Penh Governor Kep Chuktema is scheduled to unveil the city’s controversial “Freedom Park” in a ceremony on Thursday, according to an official City Hall document, reigniting concerns that it will be used as a pretext to crack down on public demonstrations.

The park, a specially designed space close to the railway station in central Phnom Penh, will allow protests and gatherings of up to 200 people in line with the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations, passed in October 2009. But the Freedom Park has come under fire from opposition parties and rights groups, who have described the park – as well as the new law on demonstrations – as a threat to freedom of expression.

The law restricts public protests to crowds of fewer than 200 people, and requires at least three representatives to register their identification cards with local authorities at least five days prior to the protest. Demonstrations are also banned after dark.

Mu Sochua, a lawmaker for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, said that limiting the space for and duration of demonstrations was a sign the government “does not respect the rights of victims while the country is full of nepotism”.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, also criticised the law for only permitting protests far from government ministries and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence. “What does it mean for us to hold a peaceful demonstrations at a place where the government, the parliamentarians and the international community will not see and hear our voice?” he said.

The governor could not be reached for comment, but Kirt Chantharith, spokesman of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, said street demonstrations would not be prohibited once the “Freedom Park” opened, but would have to be approved by the authorities.

“It doesn’t matter about the location,” he said. “If the request of the protestors is in the national interest, then the government will take them into consideration.”

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