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(New York) - The Cambodian government should ensure the safety of Buddhist monks whom police attacked during a peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 17, riot police violently assaulted with wooden and electric shock batons a group of 47 Khmer Krom Buddhist monks – indigenous ethnic Khmer from southern Vietnam – when they attempted to deliver a petition protesting the imprisonment of monks in Vietnam to the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh. Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Touch Naroth announced that authorities are investigating all of the monks who protested in order to find the “fake monks who instigated the violence.”

“These Khmer Krom monks have suffered police abuse in Cambodia and face imprisonment and torture if they’re sent to Vietnam,” said Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Cambodian government shouldn’t emulate Burma’s generals by brutally cracking down on monks who peacefully protest. They are Cambodian citizens who deserve protection, not more mistreatment, from the Cambodian government.”

Human Rights Watch is concerned that Cambodian authorities will now arrest, defrock, and forcibly send the monks who protested to Vietnam, where they could face severe reprisals. Vietnam has a policy of imprisoning peaceful critics of the government, including Catholic priests, Buddhist monks, human rights lawyers, and trade union activists (Vietnam Country Page).

The Cambodian government has “returned” Khmer Krom to Vietnam, even though international law prohibits the expulsion without due process of persons from a country where they legally reside.

For example, in June 2007, Khmer Krom monk Tim Sakhorn, a longtime abbot in Cambodia, was defrocked by Cambodian authorities and sent to Vietnam, where he was sentenced to prison on charges of violating Vietnam’s national unity policy because he had allegedly distributed bulletins about Khmer Krom history and politics and sheltered monks fleeing from Vietnam.

In February 2007, Vietnamese authorities arrested, defrocked, and imprisoned Khmer Krom monks in Soc Trang province, Vietnam, for peacefully protesting in support of religious freedom. Five monks were sentenced to prison in Vietnam on charges of disrupting social order. Afterwards, dozens of Khmer Krom monks fled from Vietnam to Cambodia, where they conducted protests in February and April to call for the release of the five monks.

“There is real concern for the safety of Khmer Krom who protest in either Cambodia or Vietnam,” said Richardson.

After Khmer Krom monks protested outside the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh on February 27, 2007, one of the monk protesters was found dead in his pagoda, with his throat repeatedly slit. Police labeled the killing a suicide, ordered his immediate burial, and prohibited monks from conducting funeral proceedings.

While some of the defrocked monks who fled to Cambodia from Vietnam earlier this year were subsequently re-ordained by Cambodian abbots, many have not yet been granted “chaiya,” or official monk identification cards, by the Cambodian Ministry of Cults and Religion. This enables the Cambodian authorities to dispute their legitimacy as monks, using this as grounds to arrest them as “fake monks” and forcibly send them to Vietnam.

The December 17 Protests

Around 8 a.m. on December 17 a group of 47 Khmer Krom monks gathered at the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh to submit a petition calling for the Vietnamese government to release six Khmer Krom monks from prison, resolve land conflicts arising from post-1978 confiscation of Khmer Krom farmland in Vietnam, and respect the rights of indigenous people.

The written demands of the Khmer Krom monks demonstrating on December 17 did not call for return to Cambodia of the territory known as Kampuchea Krom, which the French turned over to Vietnam in 1949. The monks asked for resolution of land conflicts arising from land grabs by Vietnamese authorities and ethnic Vietnamese citizens of land belonging to Khmer Krom people in Vietnam, particularly since 1978, when the Vietnamese government forcibly relocated Khmer Krom away from their farmland near the Cambodian border in the face of cross-border attacks by the Khmer Rouge.

Several dozen riot police carrying shields, and wooden and electric shock batons – and some with assault rifles and revolvers – cordoned off the area around the Vietnamese Embassy, blocking a long stretch of Monivong Boulevard during the morning rush hour. The police photographed all of the monks as well as United Nations and Cambodian human rights monitors. More riot police soon arrived, until there were more than 60 at the scene.

After negotiations between the police and the monks, five monks were allowed to approach the embassy gate to deliver the petition. At 8:40 a.m., when no one from the embassy came out to receive the petition, the larger group of monks began to press closer to the embassy entrance. The police used their shields to push the monks back, and one monk was hit on the head. Some scuffling ensued.

As the monks made their way through police lines and walked toward the gate of the embassy, the commanding officer, a deputy police chief, shouted an order for the police to shoot the “stubborn-headed monks” if they continued to advance toward the embassy. About 10 police officers moved their AK-47 assault rifles, which had been slung over their shoulders, to their hands and others unsnapped the holsters to their revolvers. The order was not carried out, however, despite the deputy police chief repeating several times: “Shoot! Shoot!” Instead, the riot police regrouped, positioning themselves in front of the monks and blocking them from proceeding. They loaded batteries into their electric batons and began testing them.

The monks sat down on the sidewalk and began to chant Buddhist prayers. Around 9 a.m., eight more anti-riot police arrived, some carrying AK-47 rifles and pistols. They merged into the front lines of the police and aggressively cursed and taunted the monks, some of whom insulted the police back.

Around 9:30 a.m., the monks stood up, saying they were returning to their pagoda, though it was apparent that some intended to try to move toward the embassy again. Eight anti-riot police then used their shields and wooden batons to beat the monks on their heads, arms, groins, and shoulders; shocked them with the electric batons; hit them with their fists; and kicked them with their boots. The monks tried to defend themselves using their hands and their feet – clad only in plastic sandals – and threw their plastic water bottles at the police. Some swung their cloth shoulder-bags at the police.

The monks then turned and fled. The police chased them for four blocks, kicking and beating the monks along the way, as well as one young boy who attempted to retrieve the sandals and bag of a monk who had been knocked down. The police shouted to startled passers-by as they chased the monks through the streets that “these are not real monks that we are beating.”

Six monks were severely injured, including one with a large contusion on his head, one who fell unconscious after being hit with an electric baton, and several who had leg and knee injuries. Some of the police officers suffered minor scratches and bruises.

Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to promptly and impartially investigate the police’s use of force against the monks and prosecute all those responsible for using unnecessary or excessive violence.

The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials must use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense. The legitimate objective should be achieved with minimal damage and injury.

“The police continued to beat the monks even after they had moved away from the embassy, well after the protest was dispersed,” said Richardson. “They were not chasing the monks to carry out lawful arrests, but to beat them.”

In the past, Khmer Krom monks have been able to freely cross from Vietnam without visas to study Buddhism at Pali Schools in Cambodia. Since the February 2007 crackdown in Vietnam and the demonstrations by Khmer Krom monks in Phnom Penh, however, Cambodian authorities have made it more difficult for monks from Vietnam to obtain permission from Buddhist authorities to stay in pagodas in Cambodia while studying there.

In addition, Cambodian authorities have threatened Khmer Krom monks in Phnom Penh, Banteay Meanchey, and Kompong Speu provinces with expulsion from temples or being forcibly sent or returned to Vietnam if they meet with Khmer Krom groups, distribute Khmer Krom bulletins covering cultural, religious and political affairs, or participate in protests.

In June, the Cambodian Ministry of Cults and Religion issued an order banning Buddhist monks from participating in demonstrations.

“The Cambodian government should uphold its commitment to free assembly and expression enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution and the many human rights treaties it has signed,” said Richardson.

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