Banners at the offices of three prominent NGOs calling for the release of the “Adhoc 5” were forcibly removed yesterday by district and commune police in Koh Kong province’s Smach Meanchey commune, an action that even a local police chief acknowledged didn’t “refer to any article of the law”.
Adhoc Provincial Coordinator Nheab Sam Oeun said that the banners, which had been hanging at the office for three months, had never drawn any attention until yesterday.
Bearing the message “Free Human Rights Defenders”, the banners showed portraits of the five current and former Adhoc staffers who have been imprisoned without trial for more than a year in a case widely believed to be politically motivated.
Last week, a Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge extended the pretrial detention of the group – which comprises Adhoc staffers Lim Mony, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan and Nay Vanda, and ex-staffer and National Election Committee Deputy Secretary-General Ny Chakrya – for another six months.
“We have hung those banners for almost three months [and] there was no trouble at all. But today there were four police officials, including Commune Police [Chief] Hem Sotha, who came to remove [them],” Sam Oeun said, adding that the police did not give any prior notice.
“We told them not to remove those banners because our NGO is legal and it has been open for 10 years Those posters do not hurt anything.” According to Sam Oeun, the police removed the posters themselves after the office’s staff refused to do so.
“The police asked us to remove it by ourselves but we did not do as they asked because our NGO is to make reforms for implementing the law . . . I think what they did completely violated the law, freedom of expression and did not follow democracy,” he said.
Commune Police Chief Sotha, however, defended the actions of his police force, saying the NGOs had not informed the village and commune chiefs before putting up the banners. When asked which element of the penal code his officers were enforcing, he replied: “We don’t refer to any article of the law.”
According to District Police Chief Min Reaksmey, the police removed the banners because they had received complaints from villagers.
“Because their [the villagers] houses are close to those NGOs’ offices, if there are posters there, there must be gatherings which impact them earning a living,” he said.
He added that the villagers, whose names he said he could not reveal in order to protect their identity, said the message in the banner was “misleading” in that it implied that the government was wrongfully detaining the five.
Rights organizations and monitors, meanwhile, have widely denounced the case.
Provincial Police Chief Sam Keath Veat said yesterday that he was unaware of the incident, but believed that the police had a reason for removing the banners.
“Police cannot enter the buildings and remove [public property]. I think the police would not have gone to remove the banners without complaints from villagers.
If the police went without the complaints, I don’t think it is the right thing to do,” he said, adding that his department would not look further into the case.
Provincial Licadho coordinator In Kong Chit said that his organisation had never heard of complaints.
“We hung [the banners] at our door gates for two months. We don’t hang them on anyone’s property and we have never received any complaint from our neighbours,” he said.
Duch Piseth, advocacy director for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the police do not have the right to enter public buildings and remove property without a court order.
“There is no law allowing the police to go to the offices of the buildings and to tear down the posters in the offices. It has to be a criminal case for the police to take [such] immediate action,” he said. “The provincial police should conduct a proper investigation into the case.”
Additional reporting by Jovina Chua