When Prak Sovanny asked prosecutors where she could find her husband, detained since his arrest at a protest on Thursday, they told her to ask police. When she inquired with police, they insisted that prosecutors, not police, had that information.
Sovanny’s husband, Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), is one of 23 people arrested last week when police cracked down on demonstrations supporting a nationwide garment worker strike. But days after their arrest, which came amid a police shooting that killed at least four, the families of those imprisoned remain unable to contact their loved ones.
“We see the Cambodian government, at the moment, is going away from rule of law,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Center, noting that defendants have a legal right to contact their families. “There is no rule of law; they just claim rule of law.”
The 23 defendants are believed to be at Correctional Centre 3 in Kampong Cham, according to Tola – who said CC3’s chief confirmed this to an associate Tola declined to name – and rights group Licadho, which called the facility “one of the harshest prisons in Cambodia”.
All 23 people arrested were taken into custody in the vicinity of Phnom Penh demonstrations supporting a nationwide garment worker strike. Union leaders have said rallies in support of the strike have been postponed in the wake of military and police attacks on demonstrations over the past week.
Ten people were arrested at a demonstration at Yakjin (Cambodia) Inc in Por Sen Chey district on Thursday, after witnesses say military officials guarding the factory instigated multiple clashes with the crowd.
Police arrested an additional 13 the next day, when authorities opened fire with automatic rifles on demonstrators in the area of Meanchey district’s Canadia Industrial Park. Rights groups Adhoc and Licadho tally the number of dead at four, while CNRP lawmaker-elect Ho Vann said six people were killed in the crackdown, according to families who notified him. Between the two counts, as many as seven people may have died.
Everyone in the group has been charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances and intentional damage with aggravating circumstances, Tola said. If convicted of both crimes, each person could receive a maximum of five years in prison and fines from $1,000 to $2,500.
In a joint statement released by CLEC and Licadho yesterday, the NGOs condemned the veil of secrecy placed over the whereabouts of the 23 prisoners.
“Right now, these men have no access to the outside world, and in the current climate anything could happen,” said the statement, which pointed out that many of the prisoners were severely beaten before their arrests. “The withholding of information is wholly unnecessary and clearly designed to hide injuries, facilitate torture and create a climate of fear.”
The statement also pointed out that one of those held is 17 years old, and should not be held at CC3, which only holds adults convicted of a crime.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak yesterday was unsure of why the defendants would be held in Kampong Cham, rather than Phnom Penh, where they were arrested. But the political nature for which they were arrested may have something to do with it.
“This is a political case, it was made as a political decision to crack down,” Virak said in an interview. “[Authorities may] want to make life more difficult for their families.”
Not knowing what happened to his 18-year-old nephew, Chrouk, is especially hard for Pich Phoeun’s family, he told the Post.
Chrouk’s friend, who was with him at the Canadia Industrial Park area on Friday, told the family that he saw the teen shot in the chest, before police scooped him into their car and drove off, Phoeun said.
“We have tried to find him, but we could not,” Phoeun said. “That’s why we held a traditional [funeral] ceremony for him.”