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‘Like animals in a cage’

Prak Sovannary, wife of detained IDEA president Vorn Pov, and her six-year-old daughter wait at the gate of Correctional Center 3 in Kampong Cham province in early February
Prak Sovannary, wife of detained IDEA president Vorn Pov, and her six-year-old daughter wait at the gate of Correctional Center 3 in Kampong Cham province in early February. Heng Chivoan

‘Like animals in a cage’

A day after union leader Vorn Pov was violently arrested during garment strikes in early January, he was driven to an unknown location and told by armed officers to get out of the vehicle.

“I was in shock and scared that I could be shot,” the 39-year-old told the Post inside Correctional Center 3 in Kampong Cham province on Monday. “At one stage, they stopped and, armed with guns, led me in handcuffs. But we were just told to urinate then get back in.”

Pov, the president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), shook slightly as he spoke with a reporter in a visitor’s room in the prison, also known as Trapaing Plong.

“We live here like animals in a cage,” he said of the place he and 20 other men – activists and workers – have been held since security forces cracked down on striking garment workers on January 2 and 3. “Wherever we walk, we have a security guard follow us. It’s completely unjust. Why did they arrest us? We are victims.”

The union leader said his group of co-accused share a cell with about 180 others. His main concern in Correctional Center 3, however, is a lack of proper medical treatment.

Despite having been shifted to a medical room in which only four prisoners are kept, Pov said staff have access only to paracetamol and thermometers and he is not able to schedule appointments with doctors from outside.

Pov, whose jaw trembled as he talked, revealed scars on his stomach from surgery for cancer he had in Thailand some time ago. Although his flesh wounds have now healed and his cancer is supposedly gone, what lay beneath the surface of his skin appeared swollen.

“Doctors in the prison have nothing,” he said, adding that his pain has intensified since late last week and he has at times been wailing in his cell. “I can handle them treating me badly – but I cannot bear my wounds. I worry I will die from them in here if I am not released.” A guard, who asked not to be named, said he has heard Pov crying out in pain “like a cow” since last week.

“I pity him, but I do not know what to do and am afraid of being blamed,” he said.

Pov was one of 10 people arrested by forces from RCAF’s Special Command Unit 911 outside the Yakjin garment factory in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district on January 2. Pov claimed he was merely informing workers of their rights during the strike over the government’s refusal to double the minimum garment wage.

When police shot dead at least four the next day, they arrested 13 more.

Pov said he was beaten and dragged into the factory before being transferred to a nearby military base. The following day, he was taken to Phnom Penh Municipal Court, where he spent five hours, before being transported to an unknown destination – the journey upon which he feared for his life.

When he arrived at Correctional Center 3, he was not allowed to speak with any of the other detainees.

“I was so disappointed, too, because for six or seven days, no relatives or friends were allowed to come to see me at all.”

Arrested alongside Pov was Coalition of Cambodia Farmers Community president Theng Savoeun, whom Pov said was denied medical treatment for hours, despite bleeding profusely from injuries sustained during the crackdown.

Savoeun, who also spoke to the Post at the prison, said he was struck in the head by soldiers after photographing what was happening.

“It’s not justice. They beat us and put us in jail,” he said. “I ask the court to speed up this process.”

While two men have since been released, the remaining 21’s request for bail was denied on February 11. The men face up to five years in prison if convicted of intentional violence and damage.

Pov has had an increasing amount of attention from guards since he secretly wrote a letter expressing gratitude to supporters and slipped it to his wife, who posted it on Facebook, he said, adding he is now banned from using pens.

But Kea Sovann, president of the prison, said Pov and his co-accused were not being treated differently from other prisoners, nor were their medical problems being ignored.

Doctors, he added, are on duty all day, every day and have access to many types of medicine.

“We [help] cure detainees here,” he said.

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