(New York) – The Cambodian government should promptly launch an independent and impartial investigation into the apparent excessive use of force by security forces against protesters that killed one person and seriously injured at least 24 others, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should publicly direct the security forces to abide by international standards on the use of force and firearms.
On September 15, 2013, security forces used water cannons, beatings, and live ammunition against protesters challenging barricades imposed throughout Phnom Penh, the capital. Some of the injured were bystanders not involved in the protests. The government placed the barricades to prevent large-scale demonstrations by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was protesting election irregularities in the July National Assembly elections. Tens of thousands attended peaceful protests earlier in the day. Police and gendarmes fired assault rifles, handguns, water cannons, and teargas at protesters and others, and beat dozens with truncheons and other objects. At least 24 protesters required hospital treatment. On September 16, smaller protests took place without violence as Prime Minister Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy, the leader of the opposition, met.
“The Cambodian government sought to limit the opposition demonstration with barricades controlling movement into and out of Phnom Penh,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “A peaceful day of protest turned ugly when the Cambodian security forces used excessive force against protesters. The country’s election impasse should be resolved by an independent investigation into claims of election fraud and irregularities – not by security forces attacking protesters.”
Final results from the July 28 election were announced by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) controlled National Election Committee on September 8, 2013, giving the CPP 68 seats and the CNRP 55. The election was marred by large-scale irregularities and systemic unfairness, including CPP control of all election-related institutions, including the National Election Committee and Constitutional Council, both of which failed to seriously address credible election complaints.
In early September the CNRP announced its intention to hold nonviolent mass demonstrations unless the CPP agreed to an independent investigation and remedying of its complaints about the election. While freedom of assembly is enshrined in international law and the Cambodian constitution, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen responded by announcing that public protests would be considered illegal. The CNRP launched a crash program in nonviolent demonstration techniques for its organizers and activists, including practice demonstrations, but insisted it would not comply with government restrictions.
On September 15, the CNRP launched three days of what it said would be nonviolent mass demonstrations against the official results of the National Assembly elections. The government deployed large numbers of armed police and gendarmes, backed by armored vehicles and water cannons, throughout Phnom Penh and its environs. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) controlled media gave blanket coverage to such deployments and security force preparations, including live-fire shooting practice, while senior security force commanders reiterated their longstanding public support for the CPP.
That morning, tens of thousands of CNRP supporters, many of them youths connected to each other via social media, but also poor farmers from the provinces, converged on Democracy Plaza in Phnom Penh. Many had to cross or evade razor wire and other barricades erected and guarded by combined groups of police and gendarmes. Around midday, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy led a contingent of demonstrators across a police-manned barricade set up across a popular tourist street to bar access to the nearby Royal Palace. Rainsy made a plea for justice to Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, after which Rainsy and most of his CNRP followers returned to Democracy Plaza.
A ranking security force source told Human Rights Watch that he had standing orders to prevent marching and parading by the protesters, but that commanders on the ground initially felt such orders could not be carried out due to the large size of the crowds. The source said that after Rainsy had crossed the barricade, high-level government officials sent instructions to not let such breaches recur. Reinforcements, including water cannon and gendarmes, were moved into position behind barricades near the Royal Palace. When several young men attempted to remove the razor wire, police responded with a volley of five or six smoke or teargas grenades, driving people from the area. This attracted more people to the scene, while water cannons were moved forward and test-fired, and a battalion of gendarmes moved into position behind them.
CNRP stewards appeared to ask people to remain peaceful and not verbally abuse security force personnel, but to little avail. Protesters began throwing shoes and rocks across the barrier. A renewed attempt by young men to remove the razor wire was answered with a sustained volley of smoke and teargas grenades. Water cannon fire was directed at one particular protester, who was knocked to the ground and pushed backward by the force of the water into a coil of razor wire, where he continued to be pummeled with concentrated water cannon fire, causing what medical personnel described as convulsions. During a subsequent lull in the confrontation, an even larger crowd gathered and threatened to storm the barricade. Sam Rainsy arrived on the scene and asked the crowd to refrain from violence and to relocate to Democracy Plaza or return to their homes, which most did. Police also agreed to open the barrier, allowing residents and others to enter the area, and the situation around the palace calmed.
After night fell, a larger confrontation developed in a part of Phnom Penh known as Kbal Thnal, the site of an important bridge and intersection. The area is a choke point for access to suburban areas east and south of the capital, in which many working class and small business CNRP supporters reside and where the CNRP headquarters is located. A razor-wire barricade had been established for many hours on the bridge along with a heavy police and small gendarme presence around the intersection. This created an enormous traffic jam of people trying to reach this area or leave the capital, including some CNRP activists.
Altercations on the bridge with some rock-throwing youths precipitated another round of police teargas fire and the deployment of a gendarme intervention unit to the area. Human Rights Watch observed the advancing gendarmes loading and arming assault rifles and automatic pistols with live ammunition as they pushed their way in the dark through stopped cars and milling but unthreatening crowds to the intersection, where they linked up with the civilian police. The police were observed chasing and beating any young men they could spot in the intersection area, indiscriminately accusing them of being CNRP demonstrators while repeatedly hitting them with truncheons. Human Rights Watch saw groups of police in full riot gear sometimes gather to jointly attack individual men who had fallen to the ground and were pleading for mercy.
The police also fired repeated undirected volleys of teargas, some of which fell among surprised gendarmes, while the gendarmes themselves began shooting towards the traffic jam crowd with rifles and pistols, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Neither Human Rights Watch nor other observers present saw anyone in the intersection area carrying weapons of any kind except the security forces themselves. During the shooting, one local resident was fatally hit in the head by gunfire, while eight others were wounded.
The security forces eventually opened the bridge to traffic, while most gendarmes retreated to barracks. However, another gendarme patrol opened fire with assault rifles when it attempted to advance on a large group of people to observe the man with the fatal head wound, although there were no casualties from this final round of shooting.
“Shooting live fire in the dark at unarmed people posing no imminent threat to life is the definition of excessive force,” Adams said. “An independent investigation is urgently needed to identify and fairly prosecute all those responsible for violations committed by the security forces. It is crucial for public confidence that this not be just another case in Cambodia’s long history of impunity.”
Human Rights Watch called on the government to publicly order the security forces to follow the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. The principles state that security forces shall “apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” The principles provide that intentional lethal use of firearms is only permitted when “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”
The opposition party should take further steps to deter their supporters from committing acts of violence against law enforcement officers or members of the public with different political views.
“While protesters should not threaten or engage in violence, the security forces may only use lethal force to protect lives at imminent risk,” Adams said.