Dozens of protesters marched to Phnom Penh Municipal Court Friday, calling for the release of unionists, activists, and opposition members who remain imprisoned on what supporters say are politically motivated charges.
Led by the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association and Cambodian Confederation of Unions, the group of about 50 activists and relatives of the detained initially tried gathering at Freedom Park, only to be blocked by Phnom Penh authorities.
Speaking through a megaphone in front of the court, union leader Rong Chhun called for the release of more than 50 prisoners of conscience, including the prominent Cambodian-American human rights advocate Seng Theary and NagaWold union leader Chhim Sithar.
“Release people imprisoned at Trapaing Thlong and Prey Sar prisons,” he said.
“I hope that they will release them because Cambodia needs support from the international community,” he added, citing the partial suspension of EU trade preferences that has been in place since 2020.
Chhun, who himself was convicted of incitement for statements he made about the demarcation of the Vietnam border and served 16 months in prison before being released in November 2021, said he was not afraid of re-arrest.
“I am not concerned because what we are doing is to find justice for people being imprisoned for injustice,” Chhun said.
Prum Chantha, the wife of the imprisoned CNRP member Kak Komphear, expressed disappointment that authorities blocked Freedom Park.
“I am saddened because Freedom Park is for citizens to exercise their right of freedom of assembly to protest for those who have met injustice,” she said.
“I hope to have a political settlement as soon as possible, because Samdech Techo [Hun Sen] does not want to get sanctions,” Chantha said.
Khuong Sreng, governor of Phnom Penh Municipal, said the group was barred from Freedom Park because their protest wasn’t approved by the government.
“The Cambodian Independent Teacher Association is not allowed to hold a demonstration against the court and judges,” he said. “No country can protest against court judges.”
Yi Soksan, a senior monitor at rights group Adhoc who attended the protest, said the government should do more to uphold democracy and defend rule of law. Releasing those whose arrests and imprisonments are politically motivated would be a good way to prove the government is democratic, he said.
“Before they allowed hundreds to hold demonstrations [in Freedom Park], but they are now afraid of a few of them,” he added.
At court, Y Rin, a chief of secretariat of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, met with the protesters to take their petition and promised to hand it to the court president for review.
But Chin Malin, secretary of state at the Justice Ministry, noted that the government has no right to release those defendants.
“When they put pressure on the government to interfere in court affairs, [they are asking for something] against the law,” Malin said, adding that they should find solid evidence of the innocence of the prisoners and work within the court’s procedure.
“They have the right to protest but they need to cooperate with authorities if they have reasons related to maintaining public security,” he added.
CNRP officials and affiliates have been under fire since the party was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017 after having made significant gains in national and commune elections.
More than 150 party members and affiliates have faced mass trials that have been criticized for failing due process.
(Additional reporting by Ou Leang Chhay)