Phnom Penh Municipal police warned a group of Rong Chhun’s supporters on August 3 that they would face legal action if they continued to protest to demand the release of the union leader, who was charged days before for distorting information regarding the country’s border.
Some 70 police and military police officers and district security guards set up a barricade the same day to prevent a rally organized by about 30 of Chhun’s supporters in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
The court placed the outspoken unionist in pretrial detention on August 1 after charging him with incitement to commit a felony for comments he made to the media about demarcation posts along the border between Cambodia and Vietnam.
“Investigating Judge Van Senvisoth has decided to hold Rong Chhun in pretrial detention,” court spokesman Kuch Kimlong said via Telegram.
Chhun was arrested July 31 at about 9:30pm at his home in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district after Radio Free Asia (RFA) aired a story earlier in the evening on border issues in which Chhun is quoted saying that Vietnamese soldiers have invaded Cambodian territory and expelled villagers from their land.
At around 10am on August 3, police and security guards scuffled with three of Chhun’s supporters who tried to pass a barricade set up in front of the courthouse. By the afternoon, more than 30 supporters took to the streets in protest, marching through O’Russei Market to the Justice Ministry to call for the union leader’s release. After they were blocked again outside the ministry, they regrouped to demonstrate at Wat Botum Park.
Srey Nich, 24, from Prey Veng, who was escorted away from the courthouse in the morning by district security guards, expressed her disappointment that authorities had restricted her freedom of assembly.
“It is unreasonable that they have mistreated us,” she said outside the court. “I came to demand justice for teacher [Rong Chhun] because the charge isn’t the truth.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet warned the demonstrators later in the day that legal action would be taken if the protesters intentionally disrupted public safety.
“We do not allow [protesters] to provoke any anarchy in front of the court institution,” he said.
“There is no law allowing them to disturb security and public order, so our forces have full rights to prevent them,” Thet continued, adding that the demonstrators’ freedom to assemble was not being infringed.
“The priority is social security so please do not put [individuals] rights before peace and stability,” he added.
Thet said that joint forces including military police and security guards would be deployed around the clock outside the courthouse to prevent protesters from gathering.
“Our forces will standby until the illegal protests stop,” he said.
“If they provoke and disturb the people who are traveling, they [authorities] will take legal action” against protesters, he said when asked if the group would be permitted to walk along the street while calling for Chhun’s release.
Meanwhile, 141 local civil society groups and community associations strongly condemned the nighttime arrest of Rong Chhun and called on the government and court officials to immediately drop all charges against him.
“This latest arrest of a respected union leader is a direct threat to every Cambodian who exercises their constitutional right to freely express their beliefs without having to fear a midnight visit by police and years lost in prison,” read the statement issued August 3.
“We called on the government and the court to uphold their obligations to guarantee freedom of expression under the constitution and international law and to immediately drop all charges and release Rong Chhun,” it said.
Organizations who signed the statement include Adhoc, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central), People Center for Development and Peace, Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, and community groups nationwide.
The Justice Ministry issued a statement the same day warning the protesters, and calling their demand for Chhun’s release illegal.
“It is illegal to put pressure on the court institution as the court could face accusations of an offense under Article 522 of the Criminal Code,” the statement said, referring to the section pertaining to the publication of commentary intended to coerce judicial authorities.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin also emphasized that the street protests and demands to release Chhun do not influence the court’s decision.
“All those protesting and demanding cannot pressure or influence the court as it is an independent institution,” he said.
He said that the only way for supporters to defend Chhun was to follow court procedures according to the law.
“They have to provide evidence that he has not committed wrongdoing as the court has charged, so it is the only way permitted by law, to comply with the principle democratic process,” Malin said.
Pa Chanroeun, President of Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said Chhun has fulfilled his right to exercise freedom of expression as guaranteed in Cambodia’s constitutional law.
“I have seen that in his actions, Chhun has fulfilled his duty as an active citizen in a social democracy,” Chanroeun said, referring to the union leader’s interview with RFA.
He cited Article 35 of Cambodia’s constitution, which states that Khmer citizens shall have the right to participate actively in the political, economic, social, and cultural life of the nation.
Chanroeun added that if Chhun had misspoken, the relevant authorities should have clarified the situation with him, then explained the truth to the public if they found his statements to be incorrect.
Chanroeun said that the government should keep the public informed of border issues relating to the nation’s sovereign territory.
“Border issues belong to the nation as a whole. It is not for an individual person,” he said, adding that every citizen in a democracy has the right to raise questions to those who serve the nation in order to verify and receive information.
The Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC), a coalition of unions and civil society groups of which Chhun is a member, issued a statement on July 21 detailing his trip the previous day with a working group from the organization to the border in Tbong Khmum province.
Representatives for the 106 affected families in Ponheakrek district’s Trapaing Thlong commune had told the CWC group that border demarcation posts 114 to 119 were incorrectly placed, and had “made them lose hundreds of hectares of land for cultivation to the Youn party [Vietnam],” the statement quoted Chhun as saying.
“If we accounted for the former border line and new posts, it had moved 500 meters into Cambodia’s land,” it continued.
However, the Cambodia-Vietnam Joint Border Affairs Committee issued a statement on July 31 rejecting the comments made by Chhun, and calling them disinformation.
“[They] have intentionally fabricated the issue and published fake news with ill intentions aimed to confuse public opinions … making baseless accusations on border affairs and the royal government losing territory,” the statement says.