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Villagers hold a banner in Mondulkiri’s Pech Chreada district on May 9, calling for the government to release a National Election Committee official and four Adhoc employees. Photo supplied
Villagers hold a banner in Mondulkiri’s Pech Chreada district on May 9, calling for the government to release a National Election Committee official and four Adhoc employees. Photo supplied

Four Mondulkiri villagers questioned for calling for activists’ release

Four ethnic minority villagers in Mondulkiri province’s Pech Chreada district have been called in for questioning since last week by police following the posting of a photo on Facebook showing them and other villagers expressing solidarity with five human rights defenders jailed in relation to Kem Sokha’s sex scandal.

The photo, which was posted on the community’s Facebook page on May 9 – also the first day of the civil society-backed “Black Monday” campaign for the activists’ release – shows community members holding up a paper sign addressed to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking for the arrestees’ release.

However, those photographed were not wearing black, the signature feature of the Black Monday campaign, which authorities in recent days have likened to an Eastern European-style colour revolution.

“We, the ethnic community members in Mondulkiri province, are always grateful and support Samdech Techo Hun Sen, but please Samdech, release the National Election Committee officer and Adhoc human rights defenders unconditionally,” the sign said.

After district police officials saw the picture on the social media site, they called in villagers Klang Phou and Sreunh Tich for questioning on May 9, and fellow villager Kroeung Tola yesterday.

A fourth individual, Khut Chanra, was supposed to be questioned yesterday but was busy, so the police called in Phou for a second time yesterday as well.

Phou said he was questioned by the district’s deputy police chief, Chey Sophay, who, Phou said, was interested in knowing who organised the group for the photograph.

“They did not believe that we were able to conduct such a thing, so someone must have been behind us,” Phou said, adding that they had seen similar posts on Facebook and decided to do one of their own.

Klang Chou, deputy police chief in the district’s Bousraa commune, said the interrogation was not a serious matter, and that a few other community members may be called in for questioning as well.

“We want to know whether they all have the same answers,” he said.

Tola said the community was told to work with the authorities before repeating any similar events, otherwise it would be considered a political act. Tola noted that both NGOs and the government had helped the community in the past, and said villagers were simply expressing their support for the former.

Sok Rotha, Mondulkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the interrogation was a violation of the villagers’ right to free expression, adding that there was no need to question them for simply espousing an idea.

The “Black Monday” campaign, started after the arrest of the four Adhoc staffers and one election official, asks people to dress in black and demand the release of those arrested.

Eight participants were arrested while attempting to demonstrate on May 9, and five land rights activists were also detained in relation to the campaign on Monday, all of whom were subsequently released.

Licadho’s technical coordinator Am Sam Ath said the campaign was growing beyond its epicentre in Phnom Penh, and rights groups and NGOs were observing more people either dressing in black or posting messages of solidarity on social media.

Classifying the police action as a “serious violation of the villagers’ rights”, Moeun Tola, head of the rights group Central, said that while Prime Minister Hun Sen had initially dismissed the power of social media, he was coming around to understanding its reach among Cambodians.

“They have changed their behaviour [towards social media], but they should also realise that they cannot stop people from their right to expression,” he added.

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