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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - MoI denies police are targeting Arab nationals

MoI denies police are targeting Arab nationals

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The Om Al Qura Institute was closed by the government on May 28.

S everal Arab nationals living in Phnom Penh have said the police have been visiting their homes, confiscating their families' passports and copying them.

The move, which was denied by the Ministry of Interior (MoI), follows the arrest of three suspected members of the militant Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) movement in Cambodia, and the expulsion of around 50 other foreign nationals in late May.

One Arab expatriate, who has lived in the capital for more than three years, said police visited his home on June 5, taking his family's passports before returning them the following day. He would not allow his name to be used for fear of reprisals, but said he was both concerned and confused by the action.

Other Arab nationals, both Christian and Muslim, have reported similar incidents. Abdillah, a Sudanese national who has worked here for eight years with an international body, said police checked his passport soon after the suspected terrorist arrests.

He said the security forces had also registered the passports of several of his friends, adding that he was not overly concerned about the affair.

"The government is under so much pressure from the US," he said.

The US Embassy, which passed information to the government on the suspected JI members, would not comment on whether it had encouraged the government to act. An embassy official said the staff were too busy preparing for the ASEAN meeting.

General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the MoI, denied any knowledge of the move, adding that any such action would be illegal.

"There is no instruction to take them, as long as the people did not commit any illegal activity," said Sopheak. "That would be a violation of their human rights."

However, he confirmed the authorities were still cooperating with the US intelligence services, saying the two countries "exchange the names of the terrorist organizations".

The unnamed Arab national, who is a prominent member of the local NGO community, said police had insisted during their unannounced visit on June 5 that they wanted the original documents, even after he offered to provide copies.

His nearest embassy, which is not situated in Cambodia, told him it would not get involved in this country's internal affairs. The police visit was a surprise to the family, who are here legally.

"They know us. We are legal," he said.

But representatives from other predominantly Muslim countries said they had not heard of any other citizens being harassed. Mohammed Ariff Baharam, first secretary at the Malaysian Embassy, said on June 10 that none of its nationals had reported problems with Cambodian security officials.

One prominent local human rights group said it was unaware of harassment against Arabs or foreign Muslims. That was echoed by Sok Sam Oeun of legal NGO the Cambodian Defenders Project, who said he did not know of passports being taken from Arab nationals or of any other harassment.

The unnamed Arab man said he reported the confiscation of his passport to Senator Mohamad Marwan, a former president of the Islamic Association of Cambodia (IAC). Mat Ly, a member of parliament and president of the IAC, was also informed.

Marwan said the order to arrest JI suspects had come from Prime Minister Hun Sen, and so did not want to discuss the matter further.

Arabs do not figure largely in the foreign community here. The MoI's Sopheak said 459 Arabs currently live in Cambodia. Figures from the Ministry of Tourism show that 1,598 people from Africa and the Middle East visited in 2001. That jumped in 2002, when 7,800 people arrived from Africa and the Middle East.

The passport confiscation has come at a delicate time-Muslim extremists are thought to be active in Southeast Asia, and there have been several arrests in recent months.

Two Thai Muslims, Muhammad Yalaludin Mading and Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, and one Egyptian, Essam Mohamid Khird, were arrested outside Phnom Penh on May 28 for suspected involvement with JI. The Om Al Qura Institute, a school, was closed on May 29 and its 28 foreign staff and their 22 dependents were deported soon after.

After the arrests, Hun Sen said that "only the foreigners who come to hide in our country" should be concerned about the government's anti-terror activities. The PM's words and the more vigilant stance of governments in the region have left some in the Muslim and Arab expatriate community here unsure of what the future will bring.

"Right now, nobody knows why," the expatriate said, adding that he had not previously been concerned about a crackdown on Arabs or foreign Muslims before. "But now, maybe," he said.

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