In a series of actions coinciding with a visit from the deputy U.S. Secretary of State, family members of imprisoned political and environmental activists called out for help yet again in securing the release from prison of their loved ones.
More than 10 family members of jailed activists of the former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) submitted a petition Friday to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) asking for help in securing the release of their kin. They had previously submitted a petition to the U.S. embassy just last week.
Prum Chantha, who is married to imprisoned CNRP activist Kak Komphea, said UN staff had received the petition and told protesters they will try to help resolve the issue with the Cambodian government.
“Because my husband and other [inmates] are innocent, we ask for intervention from the UN to push the government to release our husbands, wives, fathers and mothers,” said Chantha.
She said she is concerned about the health of her husband in prison because COVID-19 is now spreading in the Cambodian penitentiary system. She hasn’t been able to visit her husband for about three months, supposedly because of the outbreak, so she does not know his health status.
Chantha said she and her group had held banners to ask the UN to help their husbands and other activists, displaying photos of the imprisoned people in front of the UN office on Street 271. Authorities have labelled such actions as harmful to society, but Chantha strongly denied that label.
“If we do not hold banners or yell to demand, who can know what we want?” Chantha said.
Chantha and the others were met by more than 10 security guards of the Chamkar Mon district, who were ordered by the district’s deputy governor to seize the banners and pictures of imprisoned kin.
Keo Samnang, deputy governor of Chamkar Mon district, told protesters in the presence of a CamboJA reporter that the visible form of protest could not be allowed.
“If they just come to submit the petition, they can sit quietly, but if they hold banners like this, it affects the public order,” Samnang said.
The OHCHR told CamboJA by email the office is reiterating calls for authorities to protect people who are behind bars. The office has urged the release of certain categories of detainees as part of urgent measures to reduce the prison population while taking enhanced measures to manage the continued outbreak of COVID-19 in the country’s jails.
“We call on authorities to ensure that all people behind bars have the means to communicate with families in order to inform them about their health status,” the office said in a statement. “With COVID-19 widespread in some of the country’s prisons and access to families limited, it is crucial that the authorities permit contact through telephone and other remote means.”
Chin Malin, the spokesman of the Ministry of Justice, said protestors can submit petitions anywhere, as they have to the UN and national embassies, but that petitions could not influence the courts.
“Based on the principle of law, they could not intervene with the court because it is in conflict with the constitutional law of Cambodia,” said Malin.
On June 1, U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman led a delegation to the capital that held a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen, urging various points of respect for fundamental freedoms.
Sherman beseeched the Cambodian government to abide by its international and domestic commitments to civil liberties. That included a call on authorities to promptly drop the politically motivated charges against members of the political opposition, as well as journalists and activists. She also pressed the government to reopen civic and political space in advance of the 2022 commune and 2023 national elections.
The CNRP family members weren’t the only ones protesting the targeted arrest of their kin.
On Thursday, family members of activists of environmental activist group Mother Nature Cambodia went to pray at Preah Ang Dongker Shrine, asking for blessings in front of the Royal Palace on behalf of their imprisoned loved ones.
San Saran, mother of Mother Nature activist Long Kunthea, who is now imprisoned in Prey Sar’s CC2, said she was praying for the speedy release of her daughter, as well as her safety from COVID-19.
“I pray my daughter is acquitted,” Saran said.
Pat Reaksmey, wife of Mother Nature activist Thon Ratha, said she was also begging a higher power for her husband’s freedom.
“I pray here for my husband and inmates of conscience to be quickly released, because we are hopeless with the court,” said Reaksmey.
Last month, Mother Nature co-founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson and activist Ratha were sentenced to 20 months in prison for their roles in campaigning for the organization. Fellow activists Kunthea, Phuon Keoreaksmey and Chea Kuntin were sentenced to 18 months.
Meanwhile, representatives of other imprisoned activists have also made recent pushes to secure the release of their friends and family members.
Lawyer Sam Sokong will join the hearing on June 8 to request a release on bail the prominent unionist Rong Chhun and youth group member Sar Kanika, both of whom were charged for incitement to cause turmoil to the social security.
The court had charged Chhun with incitement for comments he had made about the border demarcation made last July between Cambodia and Vietnam. Two youth activists connected to that issue, Kanika and Ton Nimol, were also charged with incitement after being arrested during protests calling for the release of the jailed Chhun.
Connected to that case, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court will continue a hearing against 15 activists from youth groups Khmer Thavrak and the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, all of whom are charged with incitement for participating in protests calling for the release of Chhun.
Sam Chamroeun, the lawyer of seven of the 15 activists, said the municipal court will continue to try his clients on June 8.