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Villagers held after protest

Villagers held after protest

More  than 100 villagers from four provinces were detained and questioned by Phnom Penh officials yesterday morning after they tried to distribute flyers urging the government to protect Prey Lang forest.

Some protestors say they were threatened with arrest and accused of degrading the city’s environment during their bid to preserve the largest lowland forest in Southeast Asia.

The nearly 3,600 -square-kilometre area spreads across six districts in four provinces: Kampong Thom, Kratie, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng.

Communities living around it, primarily Kuy indigenous people, say it is sacred and have warned that it is under threat from illegal logging and economic land concessions.  

At 7:00am yesterday, 120 or so villagers had gathered at Preah Ong shrine opposite the Royal Palace for what the Cambodia Centre for Human Rights had said in a press release the night before would be a “Long Prayer for Prey Lang”.

After about an hour of prayer, the protestors – many of whom donned hats made of leaves in imitation of the threatened civilization in the blockbuster film Avatar – broke into groups of 10 and travelled to
10 intersections in the city to hand out the flyers.

At some intersections, commune police prevented them from handing out a single one and more than 100 were detained, according to a joint statement from three rights groups: CCHR, Licadho, and Community Legal Education Centre. The three groups said they “condemn [the] mass detention of peaceful activists in Phnom Penh, in which police detained … villagers for distributing flyers”.

Detained villager Young Chin, 26, from Kampong Thom province, said police at Chaktomuk commune office accused those detained of “not asking permission from City Hall and damaging the city’s environment.”

He and the others detained at that office were told to sign forms saying they would not protest again and were also warned that if they did they would be arrested, he said.

Venerable Loun Savath, a monk who frequently blesses communities involved in land disputes and accompanies them on peaceful protests, said that police had accused him and the villagers of polluting the city by creating rubbish.

While rights group claimed “police said the demonstrators were stopped because they had not given notice to the authorities prior to the distribution [of flyers], and that the distribution could ‘disrupt social order’.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Touch Naruth insisted that no municipal officers had detained villagers for handing out leaflets.

Municipal police had been sent to provide security for the group prayer in opposite the palace, he said, adding that it was commune-level officers who detained the villagers.

Tonle Bassac commune chief Khat Narith said that he was just following orders from the district governor who had told him to question the villagers. Chamkarmon district police chief Ouch Sokhon said he did not order his officers to do anything and referred questions to district governor Lo Yuy who could not be reached for comment. All the protestors were released yesterday.

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