In the aftermath of the most serious outbreak of violence in Phnom Penh since a coup in 1997, followed by widespread arrests throughout the countryside, Human Rights Watch today called for heightened international monitoring of the human rights situation in Cambodia. The global monitoring group expressed concern that the Cambodian government could use an armed attack which took place in Phnom Penh on November 24 as a pretext to move against political opponents.
In the twelve days since the attack, more than 200 people have been arrested across Cambodia, most without a warrant as required by law. Many of those arrested or detained are affiliated with the royalist Funcinpec Party or the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).
"The Cambodian government has a right to address threats to its security in accordance with the law, but the danger here is that the November 24 incident may become a pretext for the arrest and harassment of opposition figures," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.
Beginning at 1:30 a.m. on November 24, an estimated forty to fifty men, some armed with automatic rifles, rocket launchers, and grenades, launched attacks in Phnom Penh near the Ministry of National Defense, the Council of Ministers building, and Division E-70 military base on the western edge of the capital. The government has attributed the attack to forces of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF), or Kongtoap Serey Cheat Kampuchea, an obscure group reportedly led by Cambodian-American Chhun Yasith.
Some observers, noting that within hours of the attack police were using computerized photo lists of alleged CFF members to round up suspects, have said the attack was orchestrated by the ruling Cambodian People's Party in order to crack down on its opponents.
Regardless of the motivations behind the attack, Human Rights Watch condemned the violence of the November 24 incident – in which eight people were reportedly killed and fourteen wounded – but called on Cambodian authorities to respect Cambodian law and international criminal justice standards in pursuing suspects.
Human Rights Watch has received reports of one suspect being tortured during interrogation and at least eleven others kicked or beaten during arrest. Those arrested include sixty-five detainees brought before the prosecutor in Phnom Penh and more than one hundred others – primarily civilians, students, laborers, and squatters – rounded up in police sweeps in other areas.
Although officials from the Royal Gendarmerie and Phnom Penh municipal court have allowed human rights workers and lawyers free and confidential access to many of the detained people since shortly after the arrests began, none of the detainees have been brought before a judge within forty-eight hours of their arrest as required by Article 13 of Cambodia's 1992 Penal Code.
As of December 5, the prosecutor at the municipal court had interrogated sixty-five people. The prosecutor has forwarded forty-six names to an investigating judge on preliminary charges of terrorism and organized crime but determined on November 29 and 30 that nineteen people should be released. However, it appeared that only one of the detainees authorized for release by the prosecutor a week earlier had actually been released from police
Lists of people to be arrested have been drawn up in a number of provinces, with arrests of alleged CFF members carried out in Stung Treng, Battambang, Takeo, Kampot, Banteay Meanchey, Kompong Speu, Kandal, Kompong Cham, Kompong Chhnang, Kompong Som, Siem Reap, and Pursat provinces.
Arrests to Date Include the following:
Sihanoukville: On November 26, Sihanoukville police and Gendarmerie set up checkpoints on the main roads into town and searched guesthouses, karaoke bars and other establishments, arresting eighty-one people. On November 27, another ten people were arrested. By November 30, all of the detainees had been released.
Pursat: On November 25, three Funcinpec-affiliated police officers were arrested, with at least one transferred to Phnom Penh on November 28. On November 27, twenty people were reportedly arrested and released the following day.
Phnom Penh: More than fifty people were arrested in the days after the attack and taken to the headquarters of the Royal Gendarmerie, and then to the municipal court for questioning. At 8 p.m. on November 28, sixty-five people – mostly squatters living in the vicinity of the railway station – were rounded up, loaded into trucks and held until 11 a.m. the next day in police station for interrogation.
Siem Reap: Authorities are reportedly looking for fifty people and investigating three NGOs for alleged involvement in CFF activities. On November 17, three people were arrested on suspicion of involvement with CFF, and transferred to Military Prison in Phnom Penh. All five were transferred to Phnom Penh municipal Court on December 4, where they were interviewed by the prosecutor.
Kompong Cham: Since November 24, at least eleven people have been arrested and sent to Phnom Penh.