(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should release 21 activists and workers held since early January 2014, 12 international human rights and labor rights organizations said today in an open letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen. The 21 are among 23 people detained during and after a crackdown on strikes and social unrest in Phnom Penh, the capital. The government should also lift its total ban on public gatherings.
The organizations joined the global unions International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), UNI Global Union, IndustriALL, and others around the world in a global day of action to urge the Cambodian government to end its repression of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, expression, and association.
The 21 detainees were arrested on January 2 and 3, along with two other people who were conditionally released on February 8 pursuant to a judgment by the Phnom Penh court of the first instance. Cambodia’s Appeal Court will decide on February 11 whether to grant temporary release for the 21 still in detention. They are being held in a remote high-security prison in Kampong Cham province, far from their families and lawyers. All 23 are under investigation for alleged intentional violence and damage, but they may in fact not have committed any recognizably criminal offense.
The open letter urged that the authorities immediately and unconditionally drop all cases against people who are being investigated in connection with the protests solely on account of their exercise of basic human rights.
“The Cambodian government’s detention of activists and ban on protests are generating intense public concern not just in Cambodia, but around the world,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Governments concerned about the basic rights of the Cambodian people should also make their voices heard.”
In early January, state security forces, including regular army units and gendarmes, broke up demonstrations in Phnom Penh seeking higher minimum wages for garment workers. The security forces responded to ensuing social unrest with excessive force, beating workers and firing on demonstrators and rioters, killing at least five people and injuring dozens of others, at least 40 of whom were hospitalized. Some protesters threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the security forces, injuring some.
To prevent broader protests by Cambodia’s political opposition, Hun Sen has since suspended public assemblies, in violation of international law. The authorities are enforcing this prohibition by temporarily detaining those who gather in public places and by deploying security forces, civilian “public order” auxiliaries, and government-backed vigilantes to deter and arbitrarily disperse protests and political party gatherings in Phnom Penh and other parts of the country.