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(New York) – The Cambodian authorities should protect the rights of 23 people arrested after a violent crackdown by security forces on striking garment workers in Phnom Penh on January 2- 3, 2014, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities detained the group incommunicado and without medical care at the remote CC3 prison at Trapeang Phlong in Kampong Cham province near the border with Vietnam.

“Detaining activists while denying information about their location is almost unprecedented in the past 20 years in Cambodia,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “It is disgraceful that injured detainees were denied proper medical treatment and that their families spent days trying to find out what happened to their loved ones.”

All those detained should have immediate access to counsel of their choosing, necessary medical care, and visits from family members. Those held for their nonviolent political or social activism should be immediately and unconditionally released. Government control of the courts raises serious concerns about any of those charged receiving a fair trial.

The January 2-3 demonstrations in Phnom Penh’s industrial suburbs were part of initially peaceful garment worker strikes for increased wages. Security forces, including army and gendarmerie units deployed by the government, broke up the demonstrations using unnecessary or excessive force, leaving four dead and dozens injured. Some protesters used rocks and Molotov cocktails against security forces, injuring some.

The authorities arrested twenty-three social, political, and labor activists and factory workers but refused to provide information on their whereabouts after they made brief court appearances.

Rights monitors locate detained activists
On January 8, domestic human rights monitors located the 23 activists in CC3 prison – which is normally used only to incarcerate convicted criminals under harsh conditions. CC3’s location in a difficult to access area, 158 kilometers from Phnom Penh, appears to be the reason they were taken so far from the capital.

That day, after persistent demands for more information, domestic human rights monitors, family members, and lawyers were finally able to see at least some of the two dozen activists at CC3. Medical professionals gave preliminary treatment to those suffering from injuries inflicted by security forces and illnesses arising in custody. Detaining authorities agreed to further visits by monitors, family, doctors, and lawyers on January 9, but the conditions of these visits remained unclear.

Ten of the 23 were arrested on January 2 by Cambodian army Paratrooper Special Forces Brigade 911, a unit directly under national military command. Brigade 911 troops launched a “break-up” operation during which they seized and in some instances assaulted and seized several people, among whom were ten who were ultimately kept in custody. These included three prominent activists: labor leader Vorn Peou, farmer leader Theng Savoeun, and land rights campaigner Chan Puthisak, who appear to have been targeted on account of their history of activism. All ten were transferred to the custody of the gendarmerie, a branch of the armed forces that answers directly to Prime Minister Hun Sen. On January 3, they were brought before an investigating judge of the Phnom Penh municipal court and charged with aggravated intentional violence and injury to others. The court action was announced by its president, Chiv Keng, who other Cambodian judges have told Human Rights Watch is a key figure in enforcing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) control over the country’s judiciary. The detainees were then secretly transferred to CC3.

Gen. Chap Pheakadey, the commander of Brigade 911 and vice-chairman of the armed forces joint general staff, is a member of the CPP Central Committee. Brigade 911 has a history of human rights abuses, and army sources have described it to Human Rights Watch as politically very loyal to Hun Sen. A contingent of the unit was deployed to guard the Yakjin garment factory, in which Chap Pheakadey is located near the Brigade 911 headquarters on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. 

Security force actions lead to protests
The security force actions of January 2 precipitated overnight protests and rioting by workers and others that resulted in greater excessive force by the security forces, culminating in gendarmes firing military assault rifles into crowds on the streets and gatherings on balconies of worker residences. On January 3, gendarmes and police acting under orders from the Phnom Penh municipality conducted dispersal operations that resulted in the arrest of the additional 13 detainees, according to CPP media. They were brought before the Phnom Penh municipal court and accused by the prosecution of aggravated intentional violence and various other offenses before being transferred to CC3 under judicial investigation.

The government has since imposed a general ban on demonstrations in violation of the rights to peaceful assembly, association, and expression under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party. Security forces have briefly detained those attempting to stage protests, while heavily patrolling places where people are likely to gather.

The detention of the 23 activists is part of a general crackdown on the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and other opposition. This includes the filing of politically motivated criminal cases against party President Sam Rainsy and Vice President Kem Sokha, and union leader Rong Chhun for incitement of unrest. Phnom Penh prosecutors have issued a citation requiring all three to come to the court to answer questions on January 14.

Many of the strikers are supporters of the CNRP, which has been staging large-scale, peaceful demonstrations against fraud and irregularities in the July national elections, which Hun Sen’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party claims to have won. The CNRP is calling for Hun Sen to step down and for new elections. It also supports the workers’ demands for a wage increase.

“The CPP’s violent crackdown, abuse of detainees, and ban on all protests seem aimed to prevent the broader exercise of democratic and labor rights in Cambodia, which the government clearly fears,” Adams said. “Diplomats and donors should vigorously protest these rights abuses if they want to prevent Cambodia from sliding further into repression.”

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