Having travelled for three hours from Phnom Penh in the back of a taxi with her month-old daughter yesterday morning, Van Monika stood on the red dirt road outside the fences of Correctional Centre 3 prison in Kampong Cham and cried.
She had been denied permission to visit her husband, 26-year-old security guard Pa Sarat, who has not seen his newborn daughter since she was four days old on January 3 – the day Monika says military police broke down the door to their home, viciously beat Sarat and dragged him away.
As rocks and Molotov cocktails being thrown by striking garment workers on the streets outside were met with live ammunition from security forces, leaving at least four dead, Sarat was accused of hiding protesters fleeing the gendarmes in the couple’s cramped rental room.
Monika, a garment worker at Canadia Industrial Park, near where the clashes erupted, was still in hospital recovering from childbirth. She has only seen him once since then. “My daughter cannot see her father and her father cannot see her,” Monika said, cradling her baby, clad in white pyjamas and a pink beanie despite the midday heat, in her arms.
“I don’t know when I will have time to visit again because it is very difficult for me. My husband has not done anything wrong. Please release him.”
Sarat is one of 23 rights activists, unionists, workers, protesters and bystanders who were detained by authorities over two days early last month amid protests by garment workers for a doubling of their monthly minimum wage.
“The 23”, as they have become known, were initially kept incommunicado for almost a week after being carted off to the notorious CC3 prison, near the border with Vietnam.
They have since been charged with aggravated intentional violence and aggravated intentional property damage. All 23 have been denied bail and many are said to be in poor health, especially Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA) head Vorn Pov.
With the Cambodia National Rescue Party publicly announcing that a group of lawmakers and senators were planning on visiting the detainees yesterday morning – despite a request for permission having been rejected by the Phnom Penh court – the authorities blocked the road 100 metres from the prison’s gates, with strict orders not to allow anyone in when Monika arrived at 7:30am.
Dozens of prison guards and soldiers, many armed with bamboo or wooden clubs, which they received the evening before, according to one soldier, were also deployed to the vicinity ahead of the politicians’ mid-morning arrival.
Knowing that the presence of the opposition party was likely to jeopardise her visit, Nhuong Soheang also arrived much earlier in the morning, hoping that she would be allowed to visit her fiancé, Coalition of Cambodia Farmers Community president Theng Savoeun, before tensions escalated. But the effort was to no avail, with guards telling her they had received orders from their superiors not to allow anyone in.
“I am a relative of the victim. I have the right to see him, so it is wrong what the prison guards have done to us. They told us before that we could come to visit any time, even on a Sunday,” she said.
When the six CNRP senators and 12 elected parliamentarians arrived at 11am, party whip Son Chhay demanded to meet with the ranking prison official to request that the politicians be allowed to enter to check the conditions of the 23 detained.
“We just want to visit them, because we heard that they were seriously beaten during the crackdown and have not received proper medical treatment. We are doing what is our duty as parliamentarians and senators to do,” he said.
A prison guard cheekily rebutted that the opposition lawmakers couldn’t be considered parliamentarians until they had sworn in at the National Assembly.
Eventually, Kear Sovana, the CC3 prison director, came out to explain that, as expected, the CNRP would not be allowed to visit the detainees because they had been rejected permission by the court.
As for the relatives, no visitors would be allowed to enter the prison because the lawmakers’ visit had raised tensions in the facility and problems could arise, he said. The detainees, Sovana added, were receiving proper medical care, so the CNRP had nothing to worry about.
“We have allowed their relatives to come and visit them every day since they were arrested, but today we cannot allow them to visit, because the situation inside the prison is difficult to control. After [the prisoners] heard that the CNRP was coming to visit today they became excited,” he said. “The 23 detainees are not important [compared] to the 1,500 prisoners in the prison. If they revolt, who is in charge? That’s why I have to prohibit relatives coming to visit for one day.”
But Chhay was not buying such arguments.
“The intention is to meet them and ensure they are being looked after. We do not want to interfere with them, we just want to see for ourselves if they are okay,” he said, adding that he had personally visited several prisons in the past without a problem.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator at rights group Licadho, said it was clear that the 23 detainees had become politicised.
“In this case, [both the CNRP and CPP] have not separated political issues and just visiting prisoners. If they continue to politicise this issue, the victims will be the 23 people,” he said.
But whether or not their loved ones are pawns in a bigger game will mean little to Soheang, Monika and all the other family members who wished to visit the detainees yesterday.
“They said that next time we come they will let us in. But it is not easy for us, because it is far and we have to spend a lot of money on travelling,” Soheang said.